It’s no secret that our TV, movies, and magazines are seriously lacking in diversity. Tensions over this important subject have come to a tipping point recently as we saw with this year’s Oscar protests. The increase in backlash has certainly raised my awareness of this problem and of another long-standing race issue in Hollywood.
For decades, movies have used white people to portray people of color on the big screen. Whitewashing in the media is also no big secret. In the beginning, white actors and actresses would don blackface or use makeup to make their skin darker. They would over exaggerate their features either in an effort to be funny or to make the character seem more “realistic”. Over time, the use of blackface and other means to portray people of other races has been (thankfully) deemed offensive and inappropriate. However, it is a practice that is, shockingly, still widespread in movies and TV today.
There are some notable examples that we may not even realize. For example, in the movie 21, Jim Sturgess plays Ben Campbell, a mathematical genius who who uses his skills to count cards in blackjack. As it turns out, the movie is based on the true story of an Asian-American-American student. Now, I had no idea that this story was even based on real events. I also had no idea that the main character was supposed to be Asian. This is one of the many reasons that whitewashing is so problematic. We live in a diverse world, where people of all races do incredible things. Why is it so important that their stories be told using a person who doesn't share their same ethnic heritage?
His co-star, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is Danish and also plays an Egyptian God. The producers and director apologized for the film’s lack of diversity before it even hit theaters, but you have to wonder, why is it still common practice to use white people in the portrayals of people of color? Furthermore, why does Hollywood seem to not even try to find actors who are of the same race as the original person or character? There are any number of reasons why they do this and any Google search of whitewashing in movies will give you a good idea.
Regardless of the reasons producers and directors give for using white people over people of color in their movies, the bottom line is that as this continues it only serves to subconsciously perpetuate the idea that white is best. I would venture to guess that very few people would come out and say, “I think white people are the best actors.” But, if we continually see white people in all our movies and TV and if they are continually being used to portray people of color, we will continue to undermine the advancements we are trying to make towards a truly equal opportunity society. One could argue that these people were perhaps the best actor or actress for the part. In making that argument though, you are assuming two things; that a person from each race had the opportunity to try out for the role and that each person had an equal chance. Even with all the progress we have made toward equality, we know that those assumptions aren’t accurate.
In the end, I think that this will continue to happen until enough people decide that they won’t stand for it. I’m not confident that will happen any time soon, but in the meantime we can continue to be conscious of whitewashing in the shows and movies we watch. We can continue to make our voices heard with the help of the Internet and, hopefully, we will reach the right people. The people that made their voices heard about God’s of Egypt garnered a formal apology. This is a big step toward showing Hollywood that we want to see people of color portraying characters and people of color in our movies.