For those who aren't aware, 'whitewashing' is a term applied to casting decisions where a Caucasian actor is cast as a character that was originally written or inferred to be nonwhite. It happens all the time- so often that we don't always notice it's going on. Scarlett Johansson being cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming (2017) film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is just one of the more recent examples in a long legacy of Hollywood's whitewashing tradition. It's gone on for long enough, I only wish I knew what I could do to make it stop.
Part of the problem is history. Most of the education we receive comes from a white perspective, and downplays the contributions of people of color. This problem translated to film, where actors of color were either banned, or limited to roles as servants for many years. In that sense, our history is whitewashed. Which is why Elizabeth Taylor could play Cleopatra, and Tom Cruise could play Moses. There's no reason why either character should have to be white, but because whiteness is assumed to be the default, other options are rarely considered.
Exodus director Ridley Scott was outright about whitewashing in the film, stating that:
"I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up."
If you're curious (or can't remember) Exodus TANKED at the box office. So while whitewashing reportedly helped finance the film, it clearly didn't translate to any kind of success. While there were of course other elements at play, whitewashed films have a habit of failing. Cloud Atlas, Edge of Tomorrow, and Avatar the Last Airbender were all film adaptations that replaced many of the characters, who were originally Asian, with white actors. These were all different movies with a variety of marketing challenges and audiences, but the one thing they have in common is their reluctance to cast an actor of color as the lead. So why does Hollywood keep making the same mistake?
Well for starters, they don't always fail. But there's a systemic problem in Hollywood that is preventing characters of color from being cast appropriately. Producers and casting directors are overwhelmingly white. For example, in the original Hunger Games books, Katniss Everdeen was described as having olive skin and straight dark hair. But the casting call was exclusively for Caucasian actresses. While Jennifer Lawrence did a fine job, no one even considered a nonwhite acress for the role.
I'm not sure what I can do?
Right now, I really want to support the Ghost in the Shell adaptation because I loved the series and I would love to see more female driven action movies But I don't want that at the expense of another group of people. I don't think I'm destined for a career as a casting director, and I wish there was a way I could express my frustration in a way that would actually make Hollywood listen!