Whitewashing in film

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White actor Mickey Rooney wore yellowface to portray I. Y. Yunioshi, a Japanese landlord, in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Whitewashing is a casting practice in the film industry in which white actors are cast in non-white roles.[1] As defined by Merriam-Webster, to whitewash is "to alter...in a way that favors, features, or caters to white people: such as...casting a white performer in a role based on a nonwhite person or fictional character."[2] According to the BBC, films in which white actors have played other races include all genres. African-American roles and roles of Asian descent have been whitewashed, as well as characters from the ancient world in the genre of classical and mythological films.[1][3]


In the early 20th century, white actors caricatured different ethnicities by blackface or yellowface, commonly exaggerating the perceived stereotypes of other ethnicities. For example, Swedish-born actor Warner Oland played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and subsequent films. Because of the lack of characters of color in the film industry, these roles were well received at the time by viewers.[4] Other non-Asian actors to portray Chinese detective Charlie Chan include Manuel Arbó, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Ross Martin, and Peter Ustinov.

There was a greater color diversity in film by the mid-20th-century and blackface mostly disappeared from the industry. The film Othello (1965) was an exception, as the white actor Laurence Olivier was cast as "the Moor". He wore blackface as the title character.

The practice of "yellowface" extended into the 1960s. For instance, Mickey Rooney played a Japanese[5] landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).[4] Professor David A. Schlossman said of Asian characters in particular, "Many of the Asian roles portrayed by White actors also contributed to the pantheon of cultural stereotypes in US national discourse."[6] At the start of the 21st century, minorities were still under-represented in the film industry at different stages. While historically black roles are now generally cast with black actors, the practice of whitewashing applied to other minorities.[4]

Guy Aoki said African Americans "have long felt the full brunt of the 'whitewashing' of roles" and that Asians have experienced it as well.[1] Native Americans have also had their historic leaders and warriors portrayed by whites.[7]

Role of executives[edit]

The BBC said in 2015, "The practice of casting white actors in non-white roles is still prevalent in Hollywood – despite widespread condemnation and protest." A report in 2013 showed that 94% of film executives were white and that non-white people were under-represented as filmmakers and actors. The BBC explored two reasons for the casting practice: institutional racism and a belief that well-known white actors attract more audiences and maximize profits. Tom Rothman, the chairman of the Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group said, "I guess there's a certain institutional force and memory that exists out there. ... I think the industry's improving but I certainly agree with those who say we haven't come far enough fast enough."[1]

Jeffery Mio, author of Multicultural Psychology: Understanding Our Diverse Communities, hypothesizes that the film industry, mostly white, hires people of similar backgrounds. Mio said of the rationale that only the most qualified actors are cast, "That's the argument that directors and casting directors make, but a lot of times ethnic actors will tell us that when they say we're just choosing the best actor, they mean we're choosing our friends, or people we're used to."[1] Craig Detweiler, professor of film history at Pepperdine University, said, "There are a shortage [sic] of African American, Asian and Latino stars. For all Hollywood's progressive politics, its casting decisions look remarkably retrograde."[8] In 2010, TheWrap ascribed the lack of racial diversity to institutional racism and a lack of bankable actors of color and that whitewashing in films like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Last Airbender aggravated the issue.[8]

Business aspect[edit]

On casting white actors to maximize profits, David White, National Executive Director of the actors' union SAG-AFTRA said popular black actors such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and David Oyelowo refuted the casting rationale.[1] Assistant professor of telecommunications Andrew J. Weaver said, "There is an assumption in Hollywood that whites would avoid movies with majority black casts, or any race cast for that matter. You see this whitewashing of films – even films that have minority characters written into them are being cast with whites."[9] Film professor Mitchell W. Block said studios adhered to casting norms as a matter of practicing business to appeal to investors and producers.[10]

Director Ridley Scott said without the casting of big-name actors, his 2014 biblical epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings would never have been made, saying, "I can't mount a film of this budget ... and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. ... I'm just not going to get financed."[10][11][12] USA Today noted with films like Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), A Mighty Heart (2007), and Pan (2015), "White actors continue to be top of mind for plum roles, despite the under-representation of people of color at the acting, directing and producing levels."[10]

Anti-whitewashing campaigns[edit]

Media watchdog groups have sought more authentic representations on screen, taking issue with casting decisions such as actor Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger (2013).[1] With films from the United States receiving promotion in more global markets, the groups argue for roles that represent the diversity of audiences, who are seeking more authenticity. SAG-AFTRA's David White demurred on groups' opposition to casting white actors in non-white roles, "The laws insist that one's race not be part of the qualifications for a job," but he recognized that there was a lack of diversity in roles available.[1] Law professor John Tehranian said, "Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with race-blind casting, as long as it works both ways. But in reality, it never has; one rarely sees, for example, an African American, Latino, or Asian actor cast as a white character."[13][14] However, black actors have been cast in white roles for quite some time: see for example the 2022 production of Richard III with Danai Gurira,[15] and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption among others.

Examples of associated cases[edit]

Below is a list of some of the films that have had their casting criticized as whitewashing:

Film Year Description
21 2008 The film about card counting features actors Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Jacob Pitts and Kevin Spacey in the lead roles. The film is based on the true story where a group of Asian American students and their teacher applied card counting to win significantly in gambling.[4][16][17][18][19] Jeff Ma, who was among the students, said that the controversy was "overblown" and that the important aspect is that a talented actor would portray him.[20] Ma, who is Chinese American, told USA Today, "I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me."[21]
30 Days of Night 2007 In the vampire horror film, actor Josh Hartnett plays Sheriff Eben Oleson in an Alaskan town. The originating comic book mini-series featured the character as Sheriff Eben Olemaun, who is of Inuit descent.[16][17][18]
A Loud House Christmas 2021 The white actor Matt Van Smith plays Bobby Santiago, who is of Mexican descent. The role was later recast in The Really Loud House.[citation needed]
A Majority of One 1961 In this romantic comedy film, the English actor Alec Guinness plays the role of a Buddhist Japanese businessman Koichi Asano.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension 1984 In the science fiction film, actor Peter Weller plays the titular Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, who is half-Japanese.[22]
Aloha 2015 The romantic comedy features an all-white principal cast and is set in the state of Hawaii, which is over 70% non-white. One of the actors, Emma Stone, portrayed the character Allison Ng; the character is stated as having a mother of Swedish descent and a father of half Native Hawaiian and half Chinese descent.[23][24][25]
Anna and the King of Siam 1946 In the historical drama film, actor Rex Harrison plays the Siamese king Mongkut.[26]
Annihilation 2018 In the science fiction film, actresses Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh play characters who in the novel are, respectively, of Asian and half Native American descent. The characters' physical descriptions were only mentioned in passing in the second novel, following Annihilation.[27]
Apache 1954 In the Western film, actor Burt Lancaster plays an Apache warrior.[23][16][18]
Argo 2012 In the political thriller film based on a true story, actor Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA technical operations officer who is of Mexican descent.[16][17][25] Tony Mendez said he did not think of himself as Hispanic.[28]
Artemis Fowl 2020 In the science fantasy adventure film, actress Lara McDonnell plays Captain Holly Short, who in the book series was portrayed as having "nut-brown skin" of a "coffee complexion" (also described as "dark" and "coffee-coloured" in a scene set in a spa in the short story The Seventh Dwarf).[29][30][31][32][33]
Assa 1987 In the Soviet crime film, white actor and musician Dmitriy Shumilov [ru] plays black guy Vitya, Bananan's friend.[34]
Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015 In the superhero film, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play, respectively, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who in earlier comic incarnations were depicted as the children of white Americans, but were later depicted in most comics as being partly of Romani descent.[35][36][37]
Batman Begins 2005 In the Batman film, actor Liam Neeson plays Ra's al Ghul, who in the comic books was portrayed as of Middle Eastern or East Asian descent.[38]
A Beautiful Mind 2001 In the biographical film about John Nash, actress Jennifer Connelly plays Alicia Nash, who was born in El Salvador.[4][16][17][39]
The Beguiled 2017 The drama film set in the Southern United States during the American Civil War was based on a 1966 novel that featured the mixed-race teenager Edwina and the black enslaved maid Mattie. Edwina was recast as a white teacher (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Mattie was cut out of the film. Director Sofia Coppola explained the removal, "I didn't want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them."[40]
The Big Wedding 2013 In the comedy film, actor Ben Barnes sports a tan to play a Colombian character.[41]
Blade 1998 In the Blade film series, actor Kris Kristofferson plays Blade's mentor Abraham Whistler, who is based on Jamal Afari, a character depicted as African-American in the comic books.[42][43][44][45]
Blade II 2002
Blade: Trinity 2004
Breakfast at Tiffany's 1961 In the romantic comedy film, actor Mickey Rooney plays Holly Golightly's Asian neighbor.[4][16][18][46][47]
Bullet Train 2022 In the action film based on the Japanese novel by Kōtarō Isaka, actors such as Brad Pitt and Joey King played the main characters while the setting was in Japan.[48][49] In August 2020, King said on Twitter, "I do not believe a white woman should play a character of color. Not me or any white woman for that matter."[50][51] The few Japanese characters in the movie had smaller roles[52] and many of extras were of non-Japanese descent.
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen 1981 Actors Peter Ustinov (Charlie Chan), Richard Hatch (Lee Chan Junior) and Angie Dickinson (The Dragon Queen) play the roles of Asian Chinese characters.
Charlie Chan Carries On 1931 Actor Warner Oland plays Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the film, as well as 15 other films featuring the character.[4]
Cocaine Godmother 2018 In the biographical crime-drama television film, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones plays real-life Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco.[53]
The Conqueror 1956 In the epic film, actor John Wayne plays the title character Genghis Khan, a Mongol emperor.[4][16][18][46][47]
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 In the Batman film, British actor Tom Hardy portrays Bane, who in the comics has origins in a fictional Latin American country located in the Caribbean.[54][55] French actress Marion Cotillard portrays Talia al Ghul, who in the comics is of Middle Eastern or East Asian descent.
Death Note 2017 The English-language adaptation of the Japanese manga relocates the story to Seattle and renamed the protagonist Light Turner. USA Today reported that the film received backlash for whitewashing in casting white actors when Asian American actors could have been cast.[56]
Divergent 2014 In the science fiction film, actor Theo James plays Four, who the novel's author Veronica Roth had confirmed to be biracial.[57]
Dr. No 1962 In the spy film, the first James Bond film, white actor Joseph Wiseman plays the titular Julius No, who is half-Chinese,[58] while British actress Zena Marshall plays Miss Taro, another character of Asian descent.[59]
Doctor Strange 2016 In the superhero film, actress Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One, who in the comics is a man from Kamar-Taj, a fictional kingdom in the Himalayas.[60][61][62][63]
Dragon Seed 1944 In the war drama film, actor Katharine Hepburn plays the Chinese protagonist Jade.[16][18][64]
Dragonball Evolution 2009 In the film based on the Japanese manga Dragon Ball, actor Justin Chatwin plays the lead character Goku.[16][18]
Drive 2011 In the crime film, actor Carey Mulligan plays Irene, a Latina woman in the original novel.[16][17]
Earthsea 2004 In the television miniseries adaptation of the "Earthsea" novels, most characters, including the main character Ged, are portrayed as white. In the original novels by Ursula K. Le Guin, Ged's skin is dark red-brown and the majority of people of the world are non-white; Le Guin has criticized this casting.[65][66]
Edge of Tomorrow 2014 In the science fiction film, actor Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a version of the novel's Japanese protagonist Keiji Kiriya.[64][67]
Esther and the King 1960 In the Biblical epic film, actors Joan Collins and Richard Egan play Biblical figures who are of Hebrew and Persian origin respectively.
Executive Decision 1996 In this action film, English actor David Suchet plays the role of a Middle East terrorist.
Exodus: Gods and Kings 2014 In the Biblical epic film, actors Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul play Biblical figures who are of African or Hebrew origin.[23][68] Director Ridley Scott said about his casting, "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."[11]
The Face of Fu Manchu 1965 In the thriller film, as well as four other films featuring the character, white actor Christopher Lee plays Asian Dr. Fu Manchu.[69]
Fiesta 1947 In the musical drama film, actress Esther Williams plays the Mexican woman Maria Morales.[18]
Geronimo 1962 In this film western, actor Chuck Connors plays the role of the famous Apache warrior Geronimo.
Ghost in the Shell 2017 The U.S. live action adaptation of the Japanese franchise featured several white actors, including Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, and Michael Pitt, in the roles of Japanese animated characters. Pavan Shamdasani of Asia Times said, "The original is about as Asian as things get: Japanese cult manga, ground-breaking anime, Hong Kong-inspired locations, Eastern philosophy-based story. Most of that's been downright ignored with its big-screen adaptation, and Scarlett Johansson's casting as the dark-haired, obviously originally Asian lead sent netizens into a rage."[70] Mamoru Oshii, director of the animated series, stated that the inspiration for the world of the film is not specifically Asian, nor is the ethnicity of the "shell" of the main character, specifically Japanese.[71][72]
The Girl with All the Gifts 2016 In the science fiction film, Gemma Arterton plays Helen Justineau, a character depicted as black in the novel.[73][74]
Gods and Monsters 1998 In the biographical drama about the last years of film director James Whale, white actress Lynn Redgrave plays Whale's housemaid Hanna. In the original book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, the character of Hanna is Maria, a maid of Mexican descent. Bill Condon, scriptwriter of the film, excused it saying that the European servants of that time were considered of "more value" and thus accentuated the economic power of Whale's character.[75]
Gods of Egypt 2016 In the fantasy film, the principal cast of the Egyptian deities are portrayed by white European actors.[76]
The Good Earth 1937 In the drama film about Chinese farmers, actors Paul Muni and Luise Rainer play Chinese characters.[23][16][18]
The Great Wall 2016 In the film set in the Northern Song Dynasty of ancient China, Matt Damon stars in the lead role of William Garin.[77][78][79] Director Zhang Yimou defended the casting choice, stating that Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor.[80] Two examples of critics providing differing opinions on the film: Pavan Shamdasani of Asia Times said, "His 'white man saves China' shtick brought together the wide spectrum of film critics, respected historians and the internet's most thin-skinned trolls, in an outpouring of sheer outrage against blatant Hollywood whitewashing."[70] Ann Hornaday, chief film critic for The Washington Post, writes that "early concerns about Damon playing a 'white savior' in the film turn out to be unfounded: his character, a mercenary soldier, is heroic, but also clearly a foil for the superior principles and courage of his Chinese allies."[81]
Hell to Eternity 1960 In the war drama film based on a true story, actor Jeffrey Hunter plays Guy Gabaldon, who in real life was of Mexican descent.[82]
The House of the Spirits 1993 In the period drama set in Chile, actors Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons and Winona Ryder play Latin characters.[6]
Hud 1963 In the drama film, actor Patricia Neal plays Alma, a housekeeper at a ranch, where in the original novel, Horseman, Pass By, the character was a black housekeeper named Halmea. A co-writer said of casting a white actor for the character, "We would have loved to keep her black for the movie. She has moral strength, she's benevolent, she's tough-minded, and she's secure in herself. So we would have loved to say to the world, 'Look, here's a hell of a woman, and she's black,' but in those days you simply couldn't do it, and not because the talent wasn't there—there were at least a half-dozen powerhouse black actresses who could have played that role. But the times weren't ready for it yet, and it was, of course, further complicated by the attempted rape."[83]
The Human Stain 2003 In the drama film, actor Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a former professor who is African-American and has been passing as white.[68][84]
The Hunger Games 2012 In the science fiction adventure film, actor Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen,[16][17][68][84] who author Suzanne Collins described to have the typical look of her district: olive skin, straight black hair, and grey eyes. Nicola Balkind in Fan Phenomena: The Hunger Games said that readers perceived Katniss and her people to be non-white; the film's casting call for Katniss specified a Caucasian appearance.[85] Collins said Katniss as well as Gale "were not particularly intended to be biracial" as readers thought, "It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There's been a lot of ethnic mixing."[86]

Deidre Anne Evans Garriott, Whitney Elaine Jones and Julie Elizabeth Tyler said about the casting call, "Calling for a Caucasian actress clearly excludes other capable actresses and privileges whiteness in Hollywood. ... This casting choice over an actress who may look more like the Katniss Collins describes—and who may or may not self-identify as Caucasian—may challenge traditional ideas of beauty, and how Western society associates beauty with heroism."[87]

Imitation of Life 1959 In the romantic drama film, actor Susan Kohner plays Sarah Jane, a mixed ethnicity woman who can pass as white.[18][68]
Intolerance 1916 English actor Alfred Paget plays Prince Belshazzar of Babylon while German-American George Siegmann plays Persian king Cyrus the Great. Other white actors portray Judeans.
Khartoum 1966 English actor Sir Laurence Olivier plays the Sudanese leader Muhammed Ahmed whose devotees proclaimed him the Mahdi.
The King and I 1956 In the musical film, Yul Brynner plays the Thai king Mongkut.[6][64] Despite Brynner claiming to have distant Mongolian ancestry, Brynner is widely considered a white actor.[88][89]
The King of Fighters 2010 In the martial arts action film based on the video game series, actor Sean Faris stars as the Japanese Kyo Kusanagi.[90]
King Richard and the Crusaders 1954 British actor Rex Harrison stars as Kurdish sultan Saladin.
Kings of the Sun 1963 Yul Brynner stars as a Native American of the region of Texas. Actors George Chakiris and Shirley Anne Field star as Mayans from the Yucatán peninsular.
Kubo and the Two Strings 2016 In the stop motion animated fantasy film, several white actors voice Japanese characters. The titular character Kubo is voiced by Irish actor Art Parkinson.[91]
Jim Thorpe - All-American 1951 American actor Burt Lancaster stars as Native American, all-round Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.
The Last Airbender 2010 In the fantasy adventure film based on the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, white actors play characters that are depicted as East Asian and Inuit in the TV series. In contrast, the imperial antagonists, among the fairest of the nations in the original animation, were largely played by darker, Southern East Asian actors.[4][16][17][18][47][64]
Lawrence of Arabia 1962 In the historical epic film, actor Alec Guinness plays the Arab Prince Faisal.[26] Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn portrays the Arab Auda Abu Tayi.
The Lincoln Lawyer 2011 In the legal drama film based on the novel by Michael Connelly, actor Matthew McConaughey portrays Mickey Haller, who is of Mexican descent. The 2022 Netflix series rectified this.[92][93]
The Lone Ranger 2013 In the Western film, actor Johnny Depp plays the Comanche sidekick Tonto.[4][17] Depp has claimed on several occasions that he has some Cherokee or Comanche ancestry.[94]
Lost Boundaries 1949 In the drama film based on a true story, white actors play members of a family that is partly African-American but passes as white.[95]
Lost Horizon 1973 In this fantasy drama film, English actor John Gielgud plays the role of a Tibetan
Mackenna's Gold 1969 In the western film, white actors Julie Newmar and Ted Cassidy play Native American characters.[96]
Maharlika 1987 An innocent native Filipina is played by American actress Dovie Beams.
A Majority of One 1961 In the comedy film, actor Alec Guinness plays a Japanese businessman.[26]
A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines 1987 In the comedy western film, actress Natalya Krachkovskaya plays a dark-skinned maid Conchita, actor Spartak Mishulin plays chief of the Comanches, actress Natalya Fateyeva plays chief's wife.
The Martian 2015 In the science fiction film based on the 2011 novel, actress Mackenzie Davis plays Mission Control satellite planner Mindy Park.[97] Author Andy Weir said he "perceived" Mindy Park as Korean but said he did not explicitly write her as Korean.[98] Another character from the book, Venkat Kapoor, who is of Hindu descent, also became Vincent Kapoor in the film, and is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian descent.[99]
The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932 In the adventure film, Anglo-Indian actor Boris Karloff and white actress Myrna Loy play Asians Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. issued a formal complaint against the film.[100]
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu 1929 In the drama film, white actor Warner Oland plays Asian Dr. Fu Manchu, and does so in three other films featuring the character.[69]
A Mighty Heart 2007 In the drama film based on the memoir, white actor Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, a French-born woman of Afro-Cuban descent.[16][18][19][25][68][84][101]
Mortal Kombat 1995 In the martial arts action film based on the video game series, actor Christopher Lambert plays Raiden, a Japanese god.[102][103]
The New Mutants 2020 In the horror comic book film, Italian Brazilian actor Henry Zaga plays Sunspot, who in the original comics was Afro-Brazilian.[104] Alice Braga, who is also White Brazilian, plays Cecilia Reyes, who was originally Black Puerto Rican.[104] On this matter, comics co-creator Bob McLeod said: "I was very disappointed that Roberto isn't short and dark-skinned. Yet another example of Hollywood white-washing. There's just no excuse. So basically, [director Josh Boone] erased everything I contributed to the way the characters look."[105]
Nightflyers 1987 In the science fiction film, actor Catherine Mary Stewart plays Miranda Dorlac, who in the originating 1980 novella by George R. R. Martin was the black character Melantha Jhirl.[106]
Noah 2014 The Biblical epic film features an all-white cast.[107] White actor Russell Crowe plays the Biblical figure Noah.[68] However, "fittingly for a Biblical story", two of the characters are played by Ashkenazi actors (Jennifer Connelly and Logan Lerman).[108] Screenwriter Ari Handel said, "From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn't matter. They're supposed to be stand-ins for all people. ... You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, 'Let's make that not a factor, because we're trying to deal with everyman.'"[109] Handel said the race of Noah's family was cast based on the foremost casting of Russell Crowe and that he avoided casting other races for people outside the family as not to show "racial differences between who lived and who died" and as a result make "a terrible, terrible statement".[110]
Not Without My Daughter 1991 In the drama film, actor Alfred Molina, who is of Italian and Spanish descent, plays Sayyed Bozorg "Moody" Mahmoody, an Iranian physician.[13]
Octopussy 1983 In this James Bond film, white actor Louis Jourdan plays Kamal Khan, an Afghani prince.[111]
Olympus Has Fallen 2013 In the action film, actor Phil Austin plays the Latino U.S. Vice President Rodriguez.[112][113]
Othello 1955 In the film based on William Shakespeare's tragedy play Othello (c. 1603), actor Sergei Bondarchuk plays in blackface the character Othello, the Moor of Venice.[114][115]
Othello 1965 In the film based on William Shakespeare's tragedy play Othello (c. 1603), actor Laurence Olivier plays in blackface the character Othello, the Moor of Venice.[23][4][16][18][25][68][84]
The Outsider 1961 In the biographical film, actor Tony Curtis plays Ira Hayes, a U.S. Marine of Native American descent.[16][18]
Pan 2015 In the fantasy film, actor Rooney Mara plays Tiger Lily, a Native American character.[4]
The Party 1968 In the comedy film, actor Peter Sellers plays an Indian actor.[16][47]
A Passage to India 1984 In the historical drama film, actor Alec Guinness plays the Indian character Professor Godbole.[26]
Pay It Forward 2000 In the drama film based on a novel, actor Kevin Spacey plays teacher Eugene Simonet. In the original book, the teacher is Reuben St. Clair, who is of African American descent.[4][17][84]
Pinky 1949 In the race drama film, actor Jeanne Crain plays a partly African American character who can pass as white.[95][101]
Power Rangers 2017 In the superhero film based on the television series, actress Elizabeth Banks plays Rita Repulsa, a role previously played by Japanese actress Machiko Soga in its source series Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger and in additional footage created specifically for use in American superhero show Power Rangers. While Soga's appearances were dubbed in English for the first season of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Hispanic actress Carla Perez physically portrayed the character throughout further seasons and following series Power Rangers Zeo, Power Rangers Turbo and Power Rangers in Space. Perez also appeared as the character in the theatrical film Turbo: a Power Rangers Movie; the role had previously been physically played by Hispanic actress Julia Cortez in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. Soga later reappeared as the character in Power Rangers Mystic Force, though her performance had been originally intended for a different, unrelated character in source series Mahō Sentai Magiranger. All appearances of the character were dubbed in English by American voice actress Barbara Goodson, with the exception of the later appearance of Soga in Mystic Force, in which Rita Repulsa was voiced by New Zealand actress Susan Brady.[116][117]
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time 2010 The mostly-white ensemble cast portray Persians.[4][16][46][47]
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins 1985 In the action-adventure film, actor Joel Grey plays a Korean martial arts master who trains Remo Williams.[18]
Rhapsody in August 1991 In the Japanese drama film film, actor Richard Gere plays the Japanese American nephew of an elderly Japanese atomic bomb survivor.
Sayonara 1957 In the film, Mexican-American actor Ricardo Montalbán plays Nakamura, a Japanese Kabuki performer.
Scarface 1983 Al Pacino, an Italian-American actor, plays Cuban drug lord Tony Montana.[118]
Shirli-myrli 1995 At least four white actors play African-Americans. Mikhail Kokshenov and Aleksandr Pankratov-Chyorny play Ambassador's bodyguards, Valery Garkalin plays Patrick Crolikow, Vera Alentova plays Whitney Crolikow.[119]
Short Circuit 1986 In the science fiction films, actor Fisher Stevens plays an Indian character.[18][120]
Short Circuit 2 1988
Show Boat 1951 In the romantic drama film, actor Ava Gardner plays Julie, a character of mixed ethnicity. An actor of mixed ethnicity, Lena Horne, was originally cast to play Julie before the studio required a casting change.[6][95][101]
The Social Network 2010 In the drama film, biracial actor Max Minghella plays the ConnectU co-founder Divya Narendra, who is of Indian descent.[4][121] Director David Fincher said, "we had read an enormous, probably a hundred, Indian actors who came in to read for Divya and I saw footage of the actual Divya Narendra who I've met now and he's kind of like Warren Beatty. There's nothing, aside from being incredibly tan, there's almost nothing that seems particularly ethnic about him ... and we couldn't find somebody with that sort of smoothness. I looked and I looked and I looked. We went to London, Paris, Montreal, we cast from everywhere and finally in the end I just felt that Max had the most, kind of, I just wanted to make sure that Divya was an equal. He was the most important third wheel in this triumvirate."[122] Actor Aziz Ansari commented, "These days, Indian people, real Indian people, pop up way more in film and television, but fake Indians are still around more than you think. I loved 'The Social Network,' but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor."[120]
The Son of the Sheik 1926 In the adventure drama film, actor Rudolph Valentino plays the lead Arab character.[13]
Spawn 1997 In the superhero film, actor D.B. Sweeney plays Terry Fitzgerald, who is African-American in the comics. Spawn creator and executive producer on the film Todd McFarlane said, "[the decision] was somewhat based on the cold reality that if people perceive this as a black movie there would be no way we would receive the 45 million we were after. Terry's skin color has not been a major issue but what Terry stands for is more important...Every decision that I was directly involved in was based upon what would appeal to the greatest number of people while at the same time not offending the core audience."[123]
Speed Racer 2008 In the film, Caucasian actors play the characters that are originally Asian in the Japanese manga and anime adaptation. Similarly, the names of the characters, all originally Japanese, are changed in favor of its Western regionalization. However, the character of Taejo Togokahn, played by Korean performer Rain, was created for the film as an homage.[124]
Star Trek Into Darkness 2013 In the science fiction film, actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays the villain Khan Noonien Singh, who is of Indian descent. In his previous cinematic and television appearances (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and "Space Seed"), the character is portrayed by Mexican actor of European descent Ricardo Montalbán.[17][125]
Starship Troopers 1997 In the science fiction film, actor Casper Van Dien plays John Rico. In the original book, the character was Juan Rico of Filipino descent.[18]
Stonewall 2015 The film about the Stonewall riots constructs a white male fictional protagonist who is shown to be a powerful catalyst to the historical riots. This is done most explicitly by reframing iconic historical moments and having them driven by him, thereby erasing the actual involvement of transgender and lesbian women of color, the historical actors. Director Roland Emmerich, himself gay, said, "I didn't make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people. I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny's very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him." He said he and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz consulted select historians and veterans and said, "There were only a couple of transgender women in the Stonewall ever. They were like a minority."[126]
Stuck 2007 In the thriller film based on a true story, actor Mena Suvari plays Brandi Boski, who is based on Chante Jawan Mallardin who is African American.[16][19][68][84]
Tetris 2023 In the biographical film, Welsh actor Taron Egerton plays video game publisher Henk Rogers, who is Dutch-Indonesian.[127][128][129]
The Teahouse of the August Moon 1956 In the comedy film, actor Marlon Brando plays the Japanese character Sakini.[6][16][18][46]
The Ten Commandments 1956 In the Biblical epic film, an ensemble cast composed almost entirely of non-Middle Eastern actors play Biblical figures of Jewish origin. Moses is played by Charlton Heston and Ramesses II is played by Yul Brynner.[23][130]
The Thief of Bagdad 1924 In the swashbuckler film, actor Douglas Fairbanks plays the lead Arab character.[13]
Touch of Evil 1958 In the crime noir, actor Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement official.[16]
Viva Max! 1969 In this comedy film, actor Peter Ustinov plays the role of a Mexican general.
Wanted 2008 In the action film, actress Angelina Jolie plays Fox, who is African-American in the comics and modeled on actress Halle Berry.[131]
Warm Bodies 2013 In the zombie comedy film, actress Analeigh Tipton plays Nora, who is depicted in the book as half-Ethiopian.[16][68]
The Warriors 1979 In the action film, white actors portray the main cast of characters who were originally people of color in the novel by Sol Yurick. Director Walter Hill recalled, "Paramount wasn't too high on the idea of an all black cast, as they explained, for commercial reasons."[132]
We Are from Jazz 1983 In the Soviet comedy musical film, actress and singer Larisa Dolina plays black Cuban singer Clementine Fernandez.[133]
West Side Story 1961 In the romantic musical film, actress Natalie Wood plays Maria, who is of Puerto Rican descent.[6][16]
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 2016 In the comedy-drama film based on a memoir and set in Afghanistan, actors Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina portray Afghan characters.[134] Tina Fey, who produced and starred in the film, said, "I had a lot of say. If your next question is, why is Chris Abbott not Afghan? — I did beg [the casting directors], 'Guys, my preference would be a native speaker.' They pleaded their case that Chris [was] their choice." Fey added, "Tricky thing is, Afghans [can be] Caucasians."[135]
The Wind and the Lion 1975 In the historical film, actor Sean Connery plays Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a leader of Berber insurrectionists.[13]
Windwalker 1981 In the western film, actor Trevor Howard plays the role of a Cheyenne Native American.
World Trade Center 2006 In the disaster drama film based on the September 11 attacks, actor William Mapother plays Marine Sergeant Jason Thomas, who in real life is black.[101]
The Year of Living Dangerously 1982 In the drama film, actress Linda Hunt plays a male Chinese Australian dwarf.[18]

Examples of whitewashing experiences in pre-production[edit]

Ed Skrein was initially cast in the 2019 Hellboy reboot as Major Ben Daimio, an Asian character from the Hellboy comic books. After the casting received criticism on social media, Skrein withdrew, stating, "Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family. It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity." According to The Hollywood Reporter, "this is the first time an actor has exited such a high-profile project in response to public criticism" over whitewashing. Daniel Dae Kim was cast to replace Skrein.[136]

The filmmakers behind The Paper Tigers planned to have a male Asian-American main character with a minority leading cast for their martial arts comedy film. They knew that it would be difficult to find studio support due to whitewashing.[137] When pitched to Hollywood producers, they were offered $4 million with a caveat that there would be no Asian lead character and suggested a white lead character to be played by Bruce Willis instead.[138][139] They were also asked to write a role for Nicolas Cage.[140] The team declined the offer and request.[141] Director Bao Tran mentioned that Hollywood usually sent their mid-level executives who were also people of color to be the messengers of whitewashing.[140] The team turned to crowdfunding via Kickstarter and a few local investors to fund their film instead and stay true to their vision.[142][143]

Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell (2019), also faced whitewashing obstacles with her film about a Chinese-American family. She mentioned that many disheartening encounters with American financiers who wanted to include a "prominent white character into the narrative, and punch up the nuanced drama to turn it into a broad comedy." Wang later created an episode on This American Life based on her family, which caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz who helped secure financing.[144]

Justin Lin, director of Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), revealed that he was told by potential investors - some of whom were Asian Americans - to add a white male lead, Macaulay Culkin, if he wanted million dollar investment for his movie, which was based on an Asian American story. Lin turned down the offer. MC Hammer provided funding and Lin was very grateful for his generosity.[145][146]

The writers of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, said that they were really sick of seeing teen movies that were one-dimensional and that had characters that did not match the diversity of their group of friends.[147] Because the main characters were Asian American, they had difficulty pitching their screenplay to studios. John Cho, who played the lead character Harold Lee, stated that, to avoid studios’ attempt to cast white actors, the writers included scenes that directly related to the characters’ ethnicities. Cho recalled, “It had to be rooted in that as a defense mechanism so that they wouldn’t get turned white.”[148][149][150]

Salma Hayek stated that she was passed over for two large comedy roles due to her ethnicity. While the directors thought Hayek was the best actress for those roles, they believed studios would not want a Mexican lead at time. The directors later said that they regretted their decision and that Hayek’s audition was better than who they cast for the movies. She also mentioned that producers of The House of the Spirits (1993) did not want to cast Latinos outside of stereotypical roles. Hayek asserted that she was denied even a chance to audition for the film because “they were not hiring Latinos for Latino roles. They were not hiring Latinos period — unless it was the maid or the prostitute. And that part was not a maid or a prostitute."[151]

When casting for Harriet (2019), producer/writer Gregory Allen Howard said that a film studio executive said to him, "'This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.' He then went on to say, "When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, 'It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.' "[152]

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