The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

"Captain Phillips" cast Somali actors in its Somali pirate roles. Which movies got casting wrong?

Topics: The Lone Ranger, cloud atlas, Captain Phillips, united 93, black hawk down,

The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever"THE LONE RANGER" Johnny Depp as Tonto Ph: Peter Mountain ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All Rights Reserved. (Credit: Peter Mountain)

Perhaps the most striking element of the Somali-piracy action film “Captain Phillips” is Barkhad Abdi’s performance as a desperate criminal. Moviegoers have had countless opportunities to see Tom Hanks be great; a prominently featured performance by a Somali actor is a far less common, and a very welcome, sight.

Abdi makes his movie debut with “Phillips” — proof positive that the director Paul Greengrass, with this film, was interested in being a bit more careful with casting than he’d been in the past, when he cast a Moroccan actor as a Saudi hijacker in “United 93.”

A good actor is able to do all manner of things, and no one is too exercised about, say, Meryl Streep playing an Australian or Brit. But when it comes to nationalities whose stories we don’t see on-screen as often, unimaginative or careless casting denies talented people the chance to represent their own experience. Maybe Tonto could have had a bit more dignity, in “The Lone Ranger,” if he’d been played by a Native American actor; perhaps a Persian actor would have made “Prince of Persia,” a movie that threw all manner of vaguely Middle Eastern clichés at the wall, a bit less sloppy (though, of course, it’s not the job of actors of color to “save” stereotype-ridden film projects). Maybe if the American crew had known that there’s a difference between Chinese and Japanese people, “Memoirs of a Geisha” would have been a bit more deeply felt.

Here are some movies that didn’t get the equation right.



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    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Black Hawk Down"

    The Somalia-set military thriller features no Somali actors -- odd, given that it depicts a military action against the government of that nation. Two Somali characters were played by British performers, and a third was portrayed by a Nigerian actor.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Cloud Atlas"

    The century-spanning pastiche of styles and nations was hailed for its remarkable makeup. But there was something extremely discomfiting about seeing white actors portray Korean characters (that picture's of Jim Sturgess, a British actor), or Korean actors portray whites, or -- sigh -- Hugh Grant playing a "Kona chief." The film's themes of eternal return came to be subsumed by distracting accent and makeup play.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Iron Man 3"

    Ben Kingsley, the British actor who once won an Oscar for playing Mahatma Gandhi, played the Mandarin, a supervillain who's portrayed in the Iron Man comics as Chinese. The movie changed his origin around but didn't change the Orientalist visual signifiers all over him.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "The Lone Ranger"

    Johnny Depp, who has said that he believes he's part-Native American, played the role of Tonto in this year's "Lone Ranger" remake -- a role played by a Native American actor on television. Depp may be part-Native American, but he's white, too, and the optics of a white actor taking on a silly, stereotypical role were not great.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "The Love Guru"

    Mike Myers, who appeared in a Vanity Fair photo spread depicting him in traditional Hindu garb years before, played a thickly accented South Asian "guru" in this flop; his career hasn't recovered.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Memoirs of a Geisha"

    This film, depicting Japanese culture and tradition, starred two Chinese actresses and a Malaysian actress. Perhaps the differences between Asian cultures were lost on the director, American Rob Marshall.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"

    Jake Gyllenhaal is gifted enough to pull off many sorts of roles. Persian Prince maybe isn't one!

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "Selena"

    This film engendered some protest early on for having cast Jennifer Lopez, a Puerto Rican actress, as one of the most iconic Mexican stars ever, though it ended up working out in some ways -- she was nominated for a Golden Globe and was, for a time, the most prominent Latina actress out there.

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "United 93"

    Omar Berdouni, who played one of the Saudi hijackers who presumably tried to destroy the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, is in fact a British-Moroccan actor; he also played a Saudi prince in "The Kingdom."

    The most racially tone-deaf casting decisions ever

    "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"

    Supporting player Rob Schneider has an unfortunate history with race caricatures in Adam Sandler films; in this one, he plays a Palestinian taxi driver. He plays an Indian man in "Bedtime Stories" and someone called "Prince Habeeboo" in "Click."

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Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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