Film and whitewashing: a writer’s perspective

Category:  The Arts
Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 at 5:00 PM
Film and whitewashing: a writer’s perspective by Roman Sabella

As with most things involving race in America, controversy comes in many different shapes and sizes. In this case, it is in the form of whitewashing, or the practice of casting white actors to play parts meant for people of color and minorities in general.

Whitewashing has been a problem since the inception of film making, although it exists today in a far less blatant and more subdued form.

Whereas films in the ‘30s and even as late as in the ‘60s, when Mickey Rooney played an Asian landlord while in yellow face, would use such archaic practices as blackface to make white actors literally appear black, today it comes more in the form of discriminate casting.

Some examples are found in movies like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man of Persian descent, “The Lone Ranger,” where Johnny Depp plays a Native American, and “The Passion of the Christ,” in which Jim Caviezel plays Christ, who was of Middle Eastern descent.

The most recent offender comes in the form of the upcoming live-action rendition of “Ghost in the Shell,” an anime and manga series which will star Scarlett Johannson as “The Major,” the strong willed, cyborg main character.

While Kodansha, the company who owns the rights to the franchise, has stated that they view this be a good choice of actress for the character, fans have caused an uproar over it.

According to a 2013 study conducted by BBC, 94 percent of film executives in Hollywood are white, which shows massive underrepresentation of minorities, which likely is a large reason why many films are dominated by white people.

In regard to actors, in 2014 a sample of 30,000 Hollywood actors and actresses found 73.1 percent were white, 12.5 percent black, 5.3 percent Asian, 4.9 Hispanic, and 4.2 percent other.

Numbers fluctuated very little over the seven years in which the study at USC was conducted, with the highest percentage being 78 percent white and the lowest 71 percent white, while the numbers moved up and down, but never progressively down.

Of the top 100 films of 2014, only 17 featured a non-white lead or co-lead actor or actress. Whether purposeful or not, this is something that is extremely prevalent in Hollywood and requires more scrutiny to truly understand why it is this way.

One such person who was interested in this lack of racial and ethnic diversity is a British blogger and writer named Nikesh Shukla. Shukla is inspired by the Bechdel Test, which is used to illustrate gender diversity in film. It created what he named the Shukla Test, which is sort of a spiritual successor to Bechdel’s test and to be passed, a film must involve “two ethnic minorities talking to one another for more than five minutes about something other than race”.

While Shukla has done no official experimenting with his test, the study performed by those at the University of Southern California has shed light on the lack of representation in film.

Next time you’re watching a movie, whether in a theater or snuggled up with your cat at home, try to perform your own Shukla Test and see how many of your favorite films would pass the test.

Roman Sabella can be reached at 

Tags: film, perspective

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