Movies

Whitewashing, a history

From "Tiffany's" to "Khan," we look at Hollywood's illustrious tradition of casting white actors in non-white roles

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    Luise Rainer

    “The Good Earth” (1937)

    Original Characters: A family of peasants in a Chinese village before the onset of World War II.
    Film Portrayal: Almost all the major characters were played by Caucasians, including Luise Rainer, Paul Muni and Walter Connolly.
    Controversy: Considered one of the most racist films ever produced by Hollywood (the characters speak pigeon-English), it was based on a 1931 novel by Pearl Buck. Frank Chin wrote in his 1991 novel, “Donald Duk,” “I only wish Pearl Buck was alive and walked into my restaurant so I can cut out her heart and liver. That’s how much I hate that movie.”

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    Katharine Hepburn

    “Dragon Seed” (1944)

    Original Character: Jade
    Film Portrayal: Katharine Hepburn
    Controversy: A piece of World War II propaganda, the film (based on the book by Pearl Buck) featured Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese woman who stands up to Japanese imperialists. With her eyes pulled tight, her eyebrows arched, and a wig tied up into a bun, it’s not a role we like to associate with one of the most celebrated actresses of all time.

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    Esther Williams

    “Fiesta” (1947)

    Original Character: Maria Morales
    Film Portrayal: Esther Williams
    Controversy: Williams, the swimming champion known for her “aquamusicals,” played Maria Morales, a Mexican woman who wants to be a bullfighter. The tailor in Mexico who was in charge of creating the matador costume for Williams would not make the suit unless Williams agreed to have her bosom surgically removed. She refused. The studio altered the suit on its own.

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    Burt Lancaster

    “Apache” (1954)

    Original Character: Massa
    Film Portrayal: Burt Lancaster
    Controversy: Blue-eyed Lancaster ran around in heavy makeup to play a captured Apache warrior in this film adapted from Paul Wellman’s 1950 book “Bronco Apache.” It’s a prime example of “redface,” making white actors appear more like popular conceptions of American Indians.

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    Marlon Brando

    “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956)

    Original Character: Sakini
    Film Portrayal: Marlon Brando
    Controversy: The politically progressive Brando would sit through two hours of makeup just to come off looking extremely strange as an Okinawan interpreter for a young American officer in post-WWII Japan. Brando wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “It was a horrible picture and I was miscast.”

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    John Wayne

    “The Conqueror” (1956)

    Original Character: Genghis Khan
    Film Portrayal: John Wayne
    Controversy: A pet project of Howard Hughes, the film is considered one of the worst ever. Grossly miscast, the film is best remembered for the “epidemic” of cancer-related deaths that befell the cast and crew. It was shot in Utah, downwind from the government’s nuclear testing site in Nevada.

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    Susan Kohner

    “Imitation of Life” (1959)

    Original Character: Sarah Jane
    Film Portrayal: Susan Kohner
    Controversy: In the 1934 film version of Fannie Hurst’s novel, the part of Sarah Jane — a light-skinned African-American who passes as white — was played by an African-American actress, but for Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version, the role is played by the Czech-Mexican Kohner.

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    Tony Curtis

    “The Outsider” (1961)

    Original Character: Ira Hamilton Hayes
    Film Portrayal: Tony Curtis
    Controversy: Curtis portrayed the Pima Indian from an Arizona reservation who was one of the American soldiers who raised the iconic flag on Iwo Jima. Film critic Jeff Stafford remarked, “Having Caucasian actors play ethnic roles was nothing new for Hollywood and this practice was still fairly standard up until the early sixties. Nevertheless, it is still jarring to see Tony Curtis in dark skin makeup with stylized eyebrows and hair.”

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    Mickey Rooney

    “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)

    Original Character: Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi
    Film Portrayal: Mickey Rooney
    Controversy: Possibly the most famous instance of yellow-face, Mickey Rooney sported buckteeth and a lisp to portray a photographer who lived in the same building as Holly Golightly, the protagonist in Truman Capote’s 1958 novella. It has been called “one of the most egregiously horrible ‘comic’ impersonations of an Asian in the history of movies.” A beloved classic, the film has been boycotted at free outdoor screenings for featuring Rooney’s portrayal. In recent DVD releases, a documentary has been included about the character, the history of yellow-face and the exclusion of Asian Americans from Hollywood films.

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    Laurence Olivier

    “Othello” (1965)

    Original Character: Othello
    Film Portrayal: Laurence Olivier
    Controversy: Olivier, who performed as Othello while in blackface, was met with considerable derision. Writing in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther described his astonishment: “He plays Othello in blackface! That’s right, blackface — not the dark-brown stain that even the most daring white actors do not nowadays wish to go beyond. What’s more, he caps his shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair and he has the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red. Several times, in his rages or reflections, he rolls his eyes up into his head so that the whites gleam like small milk agates out of the inky face.”

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    Linda Hunt

    “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982)

    Original Character: Billy Kwan
    Film Portrayal: Linda Hunt
    Controversy: After several years of increased sensitivity to racial casting (see: The half-Indian Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi”) and a preference for original racial caricatures over white-washed ones, the practice returned in this dramatization of the Indonesian Civil War. The film was based on the novel by journalist Christopher Koch, and in it Linda Hunt plays a male Chinese-Australian dwarf. Let’s run through this real quick. Is she male? No. Chinese? No. A Dwarf? Nah. Still, Hunt was praised at the time for her performance, which was described by Roger Ebert to be “what great acting is, a magical transformation of one person into another.”

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    Joel Grey

    “Remo Williams” (1985)

    Original Character: Chiun
    Film Portrayal: Joel Grey
    Controversy: An extra-legal assassin working for the government, Remo Williams, based on “The Destroyer” pulp series of the 1970s, was trained by a “venerated Asian martial arts master,” Chiun. When it came to the Hollywood version, Broadway vet Joel Grey was cast. Though the film was a spoof of the genre, Grey plays the standard “sensei” stereotype, offering wise and cryptic advice under a pile of makeup.

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    Fisher Stevens

    “Short Circuit” (1986)

    Original Character: Ben Jabituya
    Film Portrayal: Fisher Stevens
    Although Fisher Stevens’ portrayal of Jabituya, a robotic engineer, isn’t, strictly speaking, whitewashing (he was created, like Peter Sellers’ notorious Hrundi V. Bakshi character from “The Party,” specifically for a movie, and not based on a preexisting person), we chose to include it because of its widespread cultural impact. Reviewing “Short Circuit II” for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, “Ben Jahrvi was a pretty annoying character in ‘Short Circuit.’ No one ever corrected his dopey malapropisms and at times he seemed like some bad Bengali equivalent of the Czech swingers of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd.” One of the most recent incidents of “brownface” (before this), Fisher Stevens portrayal is notable not only for its offensiveness but because most people didn’t realize he wasn’t Indian. In an interview with The AV Club, Stevens explained, “Back then, I loved it. I went to India and I studied Hindi. I got into yoga. And this is in 1985. I lived with Indian people. I really immersed myself. I used to be a total Method actor, so I was really deep in the deep end. And I had a great time. And the malapropisms, they worked. I thought they were great.”

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    Casper Van Dien

    “Starship Troopers” (1997)

    Original Character: Juan “Johnny” Rico
    Film Portrayal: Casper Van Dien
    Controversy: Walking Ken doll Casper Van Dien took the role of the originally Filipino Rico, a wealthy young man who enrolls to fight a planetary war against an insect race, in this gory adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s semi-fascistic 1959 novel. Heinlein was forward-thinking enough to imagine a multicultural future, but apparently Hollywood wasn’t ready to hand over a lead in a blockbuster to a non-white actor.

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    Angelina Jolie

    “A Mighty Heart” (2007)

    Original Character: Mariane Pearl
    Film Portrayal: Angelina Jolie
    Controversy: Jolie sported tan makeup and a wig to appear more like Pearl. The casting, which was approved by Pearl, left many critics wondering why a woman of color, like Halle Berry or Thandie Newton, was not chosen for the role. After buying the rights to the film, Brad Pitt originally wanted his then wife, Jennifer Aniston, to play the role of Pearl. By the time the film was in production, he was seeing Jolie, and she was given the part.

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    Josh Hartnett

    “30 Days of Night” (2007)

    Original Character: Eben Olemaun
    Film Portrayal: Josh Hartnett
    Controversy: The Inuit vampire-fighting sheriff in Steve Niles comic book miniseries was played by Caucasian actor Josh Hartnett for the 2007 film. Producer Sam Raimi told an audience at the 2007 Comic-Con that they looked for an Inuit actor to play the role, but couldn’t find anyone as good as Hartnett.

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    Kate Bosworth

    “21” (2008)

    Original Characters: The mostly Asian MIT-based blackjack team whose card-counting system and success were described by Ben Mezrich in the bestselling book “Bringing Down the House”
    Film Portrayal: Mostly white actors, including Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth, portrayed the MIT team.
    Controversy: The Media Action Network for Asian Americans condemned the film, which replaced almost every Asian character with a white one. Producer Dana Brunetti claimed she was looking for “the best actor for the role,” and didn’t consider the race of the actors.

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    Justin Chatwin

    “Dragonball: Evolution” (2009)

    Original Character: Goku
    Film Portrayal: Justin Chatwin
    Controversy: It can sometimes be tough to narrow down the race of anime characters. While the cartoons hail from Japan, the characters are often given ambiguous racial characteristics, and, in the case of “Dragonball,” sometimes aliens. Still, the portrayal of anime characters by Caucasian actors (who are made up with Asian features for the role), as in “Dragonball: Evolution,” is a pretty clear-cut case of whitewashing.

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    Noah Ringer

    “The Last Airbender” (2010)

    Original Characters: Katara, Sokka and Aang were each depicted as either of Asian or Native-American descent in the original Nickelodeon cartoon.
    Film Portrayal: Each character was played by a Caucasian actor.
    Controversy: The only central character to be portrayed by somebody of Asian descent was the film’s villain, Prince Zuko, played by the British-Indian Dev Patel. The casting sparked a huge letter-writing campaign and boycott of the film by several minority groups. Roger Ebert wondered, “The original series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ was highly regarded and popular for three seasons on Nickelodeon. Its fans take it for granted that its heroes are Asian. Why would Paramount and Shyamalan go out of their way to offend these fans? “