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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.