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Whitewashing – it’s not about fences or laundry

Quiz time! What do Genghis Khan, Moses and Cleopatra have in common?

If you said fantastic beards then, unless there’s something history hasn’t taught us about Cleopatra I’m afraid you’re wrong.

If you said a fondness for a cracking pair of sandals then I think you need to take that up with Genghis and the original Ugg boots.

No, aside from the obvious God complex, what connects these great names from history is the fact that none of them were white. Not at all. That’s pertinent because some of the most famous portrayals of all three have been by white actors. Very white actors. You don’t get much whiter than John Wayne, Charlton Heston or Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a thing known as ‘whitewashing’ and it’s commonplace in film and television for decades – who needs an actual Chinese actor to play a Chinese character, when you can get Peter Sellers in some highly questionable makeup? Yes, it got that bad.

Still, that was then, those days are behind us now right? Well, no, because thanks to the selfless act of British actor Ed Skrein (best known as the bad guy in Deadpool) it’s been made clear just how prevalent it still is. Ed, still very much in the ‘up and coming’ stage of his career, was recently offered the role of Major Ben Damio in the new Hellboy movie, a major part (literally and figuratively) in a big franchise film and all the kudos and cash that comes with it. He turned it down. He did so because the character is Japanese American, that is to say mixed race, Japanese and Caucasian. Ed is, by his own admission, not a good enough actor to actually change race, and on those grounds he rejected the role so it might go to one of the many talented mixed race Japanese actors plying their trade in Hollywood today.

Obviously Skrein’s act and the strong moral compass that guided it is to be applauded and it has rightly been recognised across the industry. It’s especially impressive when you think that he wouldn’t have been blamed if he’d taken the role, any backlash would have focused on the filmmakers.

It does raise the question though of why is this still happening in 2017?

We all long for a time where casting can be completely colour blind, with the best person for the role getting the job, and that’s easy enough to argue for when the roles you’re talking about are traditionally occupied by white actors. Could there be a black James Bond? Well to be true to the original writing no there couldn’t, as that had him as a racist homophobe (he believed that gay people couldn’t whistle. Seriously) but we’ve let many of those elements slip away, so why not?

It’s not so simple when it comes to non-white characters however. These characters and the actors best suited to portraying them have been so underrepresented for so long in Hollywood that ensuring they are accurately cast is vitally important – you don’t repair damage by pretending it never happened and just moving on, you have to make amends. In this case making amends simply means if the character is supposed to be a mixed race Japanese guy then cast a mixed race Japanese guy. It’s not rocket science. If this happens across the industry then not only will we be blessed by a more diverse range of movie stars, but maybe we can then look to reach a point where truly colour blind casting can be a reality. Then all that’s left to tackle are the gender and sexuality equality issues!

These issues are compounded further by the roles that non-white actors tend to get offered. Need a drug dealer, rapist or terrorist? Then have we got the brown people for you! That’s the prevailing message the film industry gives young actors of colour, and based on our research it’s every single one of them. We found that out for ourselves a couple of years ago when we were making some short films for Upworthy – have a look here, and get ready to be shocked.

We’re not saying that every film or TV show has to look like a Bennetton ad or a photo of Madonna’s kids, just that these great performers should be able to look for and land roles that doesn’t involve racial profiling, I think that’s something we can all get behind.

And our take on Ed Skrein? Well we applaud his bold stance, and invite him to come to any of our casting sessions, we’re confident we can find a role that will suit him perfectly.


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