In an AP article from May 25th, author Deepti Hajela brings to light a controversy many may not even think of : Whitewashing. Whitewashing is the practice of casting Caucasian actors in the roles of ethnic characters. The examples cited are two upcoming fantasy films, THE LAST AIRBENDER, which has 3 white actors in the lead roles despite the fact that their cartoon counterparts are Asian, and PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, which casts Jake Gyllenhaal as…well, a Persian Prince. While the article discusses the controversy itself, I wanted to provide my own view of this practice and, begrudgingly, play the devil’s advocate.
One would have to be blind to not see that this happens in film…hell, its been happening practically since the beginning. But this practice should be viewed for what it truly is: it’s not about race, it’s not about appealing to the “white audience”…it’s about money. Pure and simple. Each studio has its summer blockbuster, and in order to sell that blockbuster, they need a recognizable face on that poster. So they will go to the A-list stars to get it, those celebrities who are constantly being photographed for People and TMZ. They go to them because the audience, no matter their race, know them, identify them with movies that they’ve done and in some way enjoy what they’ve seen. Presumably, the audience would want to repeat that enjoyable experience. Hollywood is not ignorant of non-white actors but rather ignorant of the audience itself and what the people want.
For those who don’t agree, let me present another argument: You have a favorite Middle Eastern actor who is just starting to make a splash on the International film scene. Do you really want his first major studio film to be PRINCE OF PERSIA? Putting ethnic stereotypes aside, I think that we all know, deep down in our guts, that this movie is going to be a stinker. Disney has taken a gritty video game and adapted it to Kid-approved eye candy. If it failed, our hypothetical actor from the East would suffer a huge set-back in his career, whereas an actor like Jake Gyllenhaal is established and can definitely rebound from taking a hit. And lets not forget the possibilities that well-known foreign actors may have been approached, but were smart enough to turn the script down.
The arguments the author brings up are warranted and worth talking about, but the examples presented in the article are all concern popcorn flicks, not films. It concerns people getting upset over movies designed to appeal to our basest of instincts, to instill a sense of awe and wonder by flashing lights in our faces for a solid hour and a half. These movies are not high art; these are not though-provoking representations of people in our world, of characters with deep flaws. These are cash cows, here today and gone tomorrow (until the DVD pops up a few months later).
A promotional featurette talking up the mysterious villains in PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME. Includes soundbites from star Jake Gylenhall, director Mike Newell, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Walt Disney Studios releases this big-screen adaptation of the popular videogame. Jakey Gyllenhaal is the titular prince, a rogue who teams up with a princess (Gemma Arterton) to prevent an evil villain (Ben Kingsley) from unravelling time itself. Mike Newell (who helmed HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE) directs, from a screenplay by Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, based on a screen story by Boaz Yakin and game-creator Jordan Mechner. Alfred MOlina co-stars. Release date: May 28.