Top 10 White Actors Who Played People of Color (and Why this Needs to Stop)

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Adequate and complex representations in media are so vital to the structure of our society. Or rather, more poignantly, the structure of how people of color feel when they see themselves represented in a positive, multi-dimensional and eclectic manner. The representation of people of color on the silver screen has largely been stereotypical and/or secondary, and those are even marginal in nature. People of color who work in the industry will speak openly about the lack of roles available to them because of their skin color. Is this not racism? So the fact that white actors have been cast in parts that specifically depict a person of color seems downright insulting and terrible. Here’s to hoping there is some progress made, maybe in the future, so that not too many of these lists will be able to exist.

10. Elvis Presley in Stay Away, Joe (1968)

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In this film we have a white male playing a Native American character that he cannot truly identify with. What’s worse, is that the actor is recognized and loved by millions, which makes the critique of his casting all the more arduous. It seems a bit counterintuitive and insulting to cast a white man as a Native American man, whose ancestor’s major focus was dedicated to a resistance movement against predominantly white male politicians that were taking over Native American land. The entire thing is a bit of a mockery. What’s worse is that even the promotional material for this movie was unnecessary and racial fodder. On a poster for the film, there was an image of Elvis sneering at an older Native American man who was wrapped in a traditional and sacred Navajo blanket. The insensitive line reads “87 years old and he still needs his security blanket!” Well how’s that for blatant disrespect and disregard?

9. Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961)

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When a film actually focuses on race as one of their plot points and basically constructs this riveting narrative about two rival gangs, both from prominent but differing backgrounds, then you figure that they would at least get the casting of main character’s right in terms of ethnicity. But no, they dropped the ball when they cast Natalie Wood to play the Puerto Rican female lead, because they were clearly not taking authenticity into account. Though Wood does possess the dark features, she is not of any Puerto Rican descent. There were Puerto Rican actresses that were cast in supporting roles as Maria’s (Wood’s character) friends, is it really that out of the question that one of them had the talent, drive and capacity to play the lead role? Given that Wood was a big name, the filmmakers were clearly more interested in her bringing in an audience, than the actual message behind the film. It’s a shame that the industry can’t seem to get away from that premise.

8. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Undoubtedly one of the great actors of his time, Mickey Rooney unfortunately has to have his career bound to this graceless and stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese man in a highly coveted film. The character’s name was Mr. Yunioshi, and his role was quite inconsequential. The director could have easily left the character out entirely. The man was Holly Golightly’s curmudgeon neighbor who really only seemed to be there for the sake of comic relief. But not of the authentic variety. Audiences probably laughed at him rather than with him, as Rooney donned yellow face and two fake bucked teeth. All around, this portrayal and character was downright cringe worthy.

7. Laurence Olivier in Othello (1965)

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Laurence Olivier could have been thinking when he choose to take this role, right at the height of the civil rights movement. To play the Moor character in this film, he donned blackface which is highly insensitive to the importance of black identity. Even the New York times was none too pleased with Olivier’s portrayal of this Shakespearean character. Bosley Crowther, wrote that the film fed into the “outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype.” Even though the film came under much public scrutiny, it still received numerous Academy Award nominations. It seems inconceivable and incredibly irresponsible that the academy would honor a film that minimized a man of color only to a caricature. Why couldn’t the film have been groundbreaking, in a time where so many were searching for racial justice and equality, and actually employed an African American actor? Why is that prospect merely wishful thinking?

6. Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia (2010)

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It would be nice if we could surmise that this type of overt casting and exclusion of actors of color, was something of an old fangled and outdated way of doing movies. But it is just as prevalent in our current times as it was during the golden age of cinema and film. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the title character of a prince of Persian heritage. Persia is in the Middle East and although Gyllenhaal does have darker features, they are in no way comparable to that of someone from actual Middle Eastern heritage. It is not only sad, but it is also unfortunate that this is something that is still so common in this society. Blogger Jehanzeb Dar commented on this phenomenon by saying “It’s not only insulting to Persians, it’s also insulting to white people. It’s saying white people can’t enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white.” This is an excellent point. If we don’t give people the opportunity to witness an inclusive world on their movie and television screens, how do we expect for it to become common practice?


5. Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)

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In this film, Marlon Brando plays an elderly Okinawan translator. Unlike some of the other actors on this list, Brando felt that playing the role was a “miscast” and “horrible”. Again, this film’s utter disregard for an organic representation of a character with Asian heritage is abysmal and a real slap in the face. The character was deemed a knowledgeable translator, but he did basically no translating during the duration of the film. This was mainly because Brando wasn’t fluent in the language. So the entire basis of the character, as well as their autonomy is now worthless. It cannot be overlooked that when a white man is made to look like someone from another race and thus, takes on stereotypical verbiage and movement, it is seen more as a mocking and less as an accurate representation and depiction. The little bit of translated language included in the film was in Japanese, and not the specific dialect of the character’s heritage. It’s almost as if a producer doesn’t mind getting it wrong, if it means they get to cast who they want. Truly disrespectful.

4. Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart (2007)

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It’s hard to believe that this even exists and is on this list. Or rather, it’s sad that it does. Although Angelina Jolie is clearly one of the most popular, highly paid and recognizable actors of our current time, it did not stop her from taking the role of a woman of Cuban and African ancestry. It’s as if to say, a spray tan and a curly wig was all that needed to be added in order for Jolie to successfully play the part. While Jolie is undoubtedly a very talented and capable actress, there are a plethora of other actresses who’s ethnic background is more closely aligned with that of the woman Jolie was portraying. Something must be said for racial representation and accuracy. Because the numbers just don’t match, if races aren’t represented in a fair and balanced manner in television and film, how is it then okay to further perpetuate the issue by casting a white actor to play the role of a person of color? It only further confounds it.

3. Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek : Into Darkness (2013)

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Here is another case of a film producer who had someone specific in mind, and the integrity of the story suffered for it because the person that was cast, is not of the same ethnicity as the original character. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily the actors fault one hundred percent of the time, although they do have to take partial responsibility for their adaptation. It is the responsibility of the industry as a whole, because the industry as a complete entity helps perpetuate it by allowing it to continue, all under the guise of hiring the best actor, or hiring the “big name” actor. That justification in any way shape or form only makes the industry look worse. Clearly, the simple law of averages means that there are plenty of talented and brilliant actors of color who are worthy of superstar status. But they aren’t afforded the same roles, so they don’t get the same opportunities. The entire thing is unfortunate and sad.

2. Ben Affleck in Argo (2012)

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Hollywood does it once more, this time they cast a white actor as a Latino with Mexican ancestry. It’s not enough that this is a gross misrepresentation, but what makes it even worse is that Affleck gets to play the real life hero who also happens to be a person of color. So not only do we not see any truth in the casting of this character, but the hero again, is seen as notoriously white. So when a non stereotypical representation of a person of color takes place in history, Hollywood deems it completely acceptable to negate that person’s ethnicity and heritage. The film industry tells us once again that only white people can be given a platform to play the hero.

1. Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger (2013)

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In this film Depp plays Tonto, a Native American character laced heavily with stereotypes and schtick. Depp is not of the ancestry of the character who portrays, but it’s also about the way in which the narrative of the story flows. The face paint also doesn’t help, some critics agreed that it was essentially red face. So what responsibility does a major motion picture studio have to adequately cast their films? Sure Johnny Depp will bring in the viewers but at the expense of what? The entire integrity of the film and the story? Is that worth it? Do we just continue to let white actors play dress up and take on races and ancestry that they do not possess within them? It should be noted that there is no shortage of people of color for these roles in question, it is that institutionalized racism that causes them to be declined in favor of white actors.


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135 Comments

  1. OK, since white people – in the comment section – feel this ‘white actor portrayal of colored roles’ is a non-issue (so do I) then they should have no problem accepting a African-American Johnny Storm for the new Fantastic Four movie.

  2. Maybe you should have done your research first because both Depp and Presley had Native American ancestry. Also while the Cuban portion is not true with Angelina Jolie, her character was of African descent, which has nothing to due with being black because a good portion of the population in Africa is white. Also Khan, in the original show/movie, was darker but it was more along the lines of a darker skinned white person, and being quite a time elapsed he could have easily just darkened up. My father is very dark now despite being a very light skinned teen/early 20 year old. I agree many of these are true but you also have to take in to account who they find at the time who could play the role. Yes, maybe someone of Persian descent could have played as well as Jake, but maybe they didnt audition.

  3. WTF!!!!!!!!! it seems people don’t know the fact that for example in Iran, there are white, brown,yellow and black people living together,making a country. when you say Persians, it doesn’t mean they are all from the same race. I am Iranian, I have white skin, brown eyes. but I have a friend in our neighborhood who is brown. Just get the fact that middle eastern is not a race and you can find different races in middle east,white,brown,black and……………

  4. Author is trying too hard. It’s called acting. Sure Rooney and Brando playing Asians is stupid and a casting fail. White actors have been playing Othello for ages. I’ve seen Latino’s who look like Natalie Wood and Affleck, bi-racial women who look like Jolie and Greeks who look like Taylor. Actually Elvis and Depp look native American too. Again, it’s acting. Quit being so sensitive or at least so desperate for a article.

  5. Suzanne Rosenorn on

    If someone is good enough to portray someone so different and does a good job and is believeable, so what? They are a good actor. What I find offensive is that SNL purposely hired a black woman because of race. Now I find that insulting.

  6. What annoys me, is when people of color are cast to play WHITE people!?! Case & Point: Jessica Alba, Wentworth Miller, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jennifer Beals. Or worse, Carol Channing who knew she was biracial and never told anyone until she was in her 80s because she didn’t want to “hurt her career”. SERIOUSLY!?!

    Love yourself for who you are & respect who you are enough to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH HOLLYWOOD! If you want Angelina Jolie to star as the leading lady of your film, don’t try to portray her as a afro-cuban lady, cast an actual afro-cuban woman, or better yet, save Jolie for a film that calls for a white woman.

  7. …But then Fox news anchors get all uptight when somebody suggests a non-white Santa Claus…

  8. Er, I hate to tell the people on here this but, clearly, it’s a good hint of white privilege being sprinkled around.

    People of the Caucasian race. Somehow, this idea of people being offended because white actors are playing minority characters and some(I know I do) are irritated about this is strange. I don’t think you can understand because all you do see is white people. Everywhere. Magazines, models, commercials, I mean, I can’t even play my sims game without all the base families except for three out thirteen being white.

    I can’t play RPGs with character creation that get my skin tone because we’re all just four shades. Tan, Brown, black like night, and that little off-white tan that Southeast Asians have.

    Miniorities didn’t get their own cartoon until, what, Dora the Explorer( do you count Fat Albert? If a good chunk of all ethnicities watched it, then okay, there’s one)? Sophia?(so we crossed off hispanics and/or latinos, I think there might Doctor something-or-other so black people are crossed off, we did have that Asian cartoon but it was cancelled soooo, well, that’s some progress), Now, how many cartoons can you think up with white main characters versus all the miniorites. I’m not even going to make hard for you by dividing it into black, asian, middle-eastern, nah, all of them except for white. Which list is bigger?

    Surprise. Surprise.

    Like, seriously, what’s up with this whining? What are you even sacrificing for a few characters being played true to their history. You see white people literally EVERYWHERE. These are the few times, where miniorities, can go, “Hey, I wonder if they’ll be wearing blank blank. My mom used to.” Or “While they’re eating dinner, it would be so cool if they were eating blank blank or watching blank blank”. We can have a connection to these characters. We. It’s not about you. In fact it has nothing to do with you. We see your green-eyed, blonde, brunette, hazel-eyed selves all day, every day. I just saw some woman in a tropical commercial. No one knows her name. It doesn’t matter. But I bet you they were put in for casting, “Searching for young, attractive white female”. Just like the hundreds before her.

    To have a portrayal of a miniority in America. You’d think we didn’t exist by our television shows. Britain has more people of color. You reading? BRITAIN. THE BRITISH ISLES, where they still poke cruelly at their own people(Scots and Welsh). Miniorities have been an active part of the community in America for almost a hundred years.

    In all honesty, we know damn well most of these actors were chosen without a thought to looking for real people of that ancestry first.
    Actors or not, when a black man plays a white man are you looking at him as a white man? Do you think? “Hm. he reminds me of my dad. I could see him being a white man.” Or are you going, “They chose a black man. I can’t see it.”. Hm, it’s almost exactly our reaction to every single person in that list.
    (except for Khan. You might as well had just changed his name anyway. Really, I could die laughing if some white man came up to me and said his name was Khan Noonien Singh. I’d be like, “Adopted, huh?” You know he’s not getting any jobs with that name( Anybody going to try and deny this?”

    And then you got those who when it doesn’t matter what race they are. Like Nick Fury,(really. does no one know black history, it’s black history month and how much does anybody know about the Tuskagee airmen. The black mason banks? Hm? Can’t be a commander ’cause he’s black and it wasn’t “the time” for it. Jesus, you may not know anything about something serious like the airmen and the banks, but damned if you know a black man could be a commander or not. The things you see on the internet.)

    I don’t think you guys really understand what it’s like to be treated like you don’t exist everywhere you go or that you’re not a part of the community because the way you look. I can honestly say even my five year old cousin knows the difference and she’s surrounded by white people who remind her everyday that she’s a “little” different.

    Seriously, it’ll probably continue going this way because for every Kerry Washingtons and Idris Elbas you have five DiCaprios, Brad Pitts, Charlize Therons, Jolies, and the list goes. . .

    So, take a breath. And chill, because white people’s feelings being ignored, I know, it’s a deal-breaker all around the world. Here, have the pleasure of knowing when you turn on the TV all you’ll see is white people with the occasional black man. Or, maybe, even an Asian. But there will always be a white man with his pretty white woman by his side.

    P.P.S
    You guys can have Cleopatra. I heard she had a genetic disorder that disfigured her face? Hm.

    But Egyptians are black because religion, language, food, and culture(the basis for any analysis) were similar to African cultures in that area rather than the Greco-Romans who like most caucasian-based cultures liked to say they owned something without actually owning it. (was that a burn? )

    They whole reason they started wearing wigs is just like how black people where weaves today. They couldn’t grow their hair long and take care of it effectively.

    And. Moors are generally black aka North African. My ancestors were bedouin Moors. I mean, this is proven fact. They were brown. Dark. Brown. Berbers. Moors. Black and/or middle-eastern but they certainly weren’t of “caucasoid” ancestry if we’re getting technical. No light skin, hair or eyes and their hair was certainly not thin or pin-straight.

  9. OMG!!! Who cares about this? All of these movies are fiction – made-up, make believe (except A Mighty Heart – which is a true story). All of these actors are acting – playing someone, not themselves. I think in most cases what drives casting is an actor’s ability to bring in bucks at the box office. After all, the goal is to make money and whatever needs to be sacrificed to make money will be done.

  10. Bertaummadome Jones on

    The reason that Natalie Wood had to play was because a different races could not kiss on screen. Thats why even though Lena Horne had starred in Showboat on Broadway Ava Gardner played the character and they darkened her skin.

  11. Samuel L Jackson, black man playing white guy.

    Nick Fury of SHIELD is a White Character in Marvel Comics.

    • Except he was playing the role of Ultimate Universe Nick. Fury, that is a black man and was designed to look like Jackson years before the movies.

  12. Rebecca Danis on

    I agree with this, but I also think that sometimes the best actor is through personality and I think it would be interesting to see non white actors don white face for some roles. Why not? The whole definition of acting is to become other than what you are. Why limit actors of any race? Also, why define what race an actor has to be? If they can do the personality, just let them play the part. Unfortunately this philosophy has been used only for white actors. It needs to be extended to all. I know the film “White Chicks” was a comedy, but I think Shawn and Marlon Wayans looked really pretty as white females, although their voices reminded me of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot”. I could see Shawn and Marlon doing a remake of that film. I think they have been the best believable, at least facially, males doing females ever. I think the issue is, is that casting calls need to be more open to people of color and people should experiment with white face if need be. In the film “Cloud Atlas” many actors played reincarnated versions of their other characters and changed race. It was very cool, although I think the caucasian actor w/ asian makeup didn’t work out so well, but that is because of his overall face shape. The asian actress Doona Bae played asian females as well as wearing white face to play a caucasian woman with curly red hair. I thought she looked very good. So the main problem here is people of color are not getting enough roles. Also there are not enough good roles for people of color to play people of color. Plus why does race have to matter when telling most stories, unless they are biographical ? To say any actor cannot have a part because they are not that race is a racist stance. To be truly non racist, color or race should not be an issue, just hire more non whites. People are making money and everybody’s happy.

  13. I find it amusing that you decry Benedict Cumberbatch playing a person of supposedly Indian ethnicity (I say supposedly because the character is genetically engineered so its kind of silly to assume he looked like a person of Indian ethnicity just because of his name) but you say nothing of the casting of Ricardo Montalbán, a person that while born and raised in Mexico was the son of two Spanish (as in from Spain ) immigrants therefore also white, nor of the fact that he originally played the character in black face.
    Also regarding Jake Gyllenhaal casting as a “Middle Eastern” Persian prince, I think persons of Persian descent, like Christiane Amanpour, might take exception to being called Middle Eastern, the two groups, Persians people, and I assume that by middle-eastern you are probably picturing Semitic people, Arabs and Israelis, have completely different origins and semblances. For starters, Persians have lighter features.

  14. Whoever wrote this article obviously didn’t do their homework. Both Johnny Depp and Elvis Presley are of Native American ancestry. Elvis was part Cherokee, as his great-great-great grandmother was said to be a full blooded Cherokee. Also, Johnny Depp’s great grandmother grew up in the Cherokee (or possibly Creek) tribe. Johnny Depp is part African as well. Just because people are perceived as one race doesn’t mean that they aren’t multiple races, and to assume that is ignorant. People should check their facts before chastising someone.

  15. The Benedict Cumberbatch inclusion is irrelevant to the point. The race of Khan was not specified in the series or original movies, therefore it didn’t matter who played the part.

    • Ozwald, sorry this was so offensive to you that you felt you could no longer be a part of TopTenz. I do hope you reconsider. I try to pick articles that show many viewpoints and that can sometimes be hard with topics on which we all don’t agree. I personally don’t agree with everything on my site, but I do try to allow freedom of expression and I allow the other writers to provide different views on published articles, such as this article https://www.toptenz.net/10-non-white-actors-played-previosly-white-characters.php written in response to the article on this page.

      I value every reader and try to respond when they voice displeasure about that site. Hopefully you will give us another try.

  16. Blanca Perez on

    Actors make their livings portraying characters that are different from their own personal characteristics. Should an actor have to be a doctor to play a doctor?

    What’s racist is this article by someone who has nothing better to do than contrive a reason to be offended.

  17. The comment about Elvis is a bit unfair. His great great grandmother WAS Native American and there was a marriage between first cousins after that so it may be wrong to assume he had no knowledge or appreciation of the role. It’s part of his personal history. Thick black hair high cheekbones and a dark complexion its not like they even had to try very hard there are plenty of people who identify as Native American who fit the same profile…

    • TOP 10???

      Ridiculous! How could you forget Anthony Hopkins and Wentworth Miller (he’s a person of color) in ‘The Human Stain? ‘ OH EM GEE!

  18. Last time I checked, Cuban wasn’t a race nor is Puerto Rican nor is Mexican, and Latino is a heterogeneous pan-ethnicity that consists of people of ANY race, so who’s the one doing the misrepresentation again?

  19. Tajah Billingsley on

    Johnny Depp is not white but indeed Native american which is exactly why he took the role.