Hollywood has had a dark history with casting white actors in roles for people of color. From the early 1930’s, when white actor Warner Oland depicted comic book detective Charlie Chan, to the 1960’s, when British actor Laurence Olivier was “black-faced” to play Othello in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play, white actors are constantly being used to depict roles originally intended for minority actors.
More recently, viewers have petitioned against the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Japanese Cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the film Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s casting, as well as the casting of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in the film Edge of Tomorrow (which is based on a Japanese novel), have caused outcries from organizations devoted to promoting diverse media representation, such as Racebending and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Also, the almost entirely white cast of Exodus, which takes place in North Africa, has led to boycotts of the movie.
However, increasing audience protests against the casting of Rooney Mara as a Native American in the film adaptation of Peter Pan offers hope to those who wish for a Native American actress to play the role.
In the few occurrences that people of color are casted in a film, it is often because the role has to be played by a minority actor. For example, The Huffington Post examined the Oscar-nominated roles played by men of color (for example, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Denzel Washington in Malcom X), and determined that all but one of those roles were roles that absolutely had to be played by an actor of color.
Oftentimes, minority actors are cast as villains. Such is the case in the film Avatar: the Last Airbender. The roles originally intended to be for characters of Asian or Native American descent were given to white actors, while the roles of the villains were to given to people of color.
The statistics are also quite disappointing. Eighty-six percent of DreamWorks films star a white actor as the first-billed role and also 73% are men. Only six percent of top-billed actors for DreamWorks are black and three percent are Middle Eastern. Only four percent of Latino actors play the leads in films. There has never been an Asian American actor cast as a lead in a DreamWorks film.
Many people often claim that casting white actors is beneficial for “marketing” purposes. Another assumption is that white-male moviegoers are less likely to embrace actors of colors. Statistics show otherwise.
According to racebending.com, Hispanic, African American, and Other (including Asian American) moviegoers all had higher annual per-capita movie attendance than white moviegoers in 2013. The average Hispanic moviegoer went to the movies six times a year and the average African American and Other moviegoers went four times, compared to Caucasian viewers who only went to the movies three times.
“Sometimes I think that casting an actor for a role of a different race, is a bit hurtful to the people of that’s character’s race because you feel like they cannot play that character honestly since they don’t know what they are facing,” MAST film student sophomore Alexandra De Quesada said.