Not Quite Black Or White: Actors Who’ve Played Race-Bending Roles

February 5, 2013  |  
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Race-bending is the common Hollywood practice of changing the race or ethnicity of a character to produce a movie. This can be done to give a leading role to an A-list actor or even to make a movie more “acceptable” to audiences – and yes, sometimes blackface is a part of this ya’ll. Thankfully, we can take comfort in knowing that race-bending isn’t always offensive. Click through to see what we mean.


Everyone In The Last Airbender

“Racebending” became an actual term following outrage over casting choices for the 2010 film The Last Airbender. Instead of hiring Asian actors to play the lead roles, as the source material called for, producers cast four white actors as leads, and just one Indian actor as – you guessed it, the villain.

Robert Downey Jr. In Tropic Thunder

For his race-bending role in Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. plays a white actor who is cast to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam War film. Not surprisingly, audience reception was mixed on the comedic use of blackface, but Downey Jr.’s own co-star Brandon T. Jackson (who’s black) praised him for the role, saying “he played a black dude better than anybody I’ve ever seen!”

Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas

In the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, Halle Berry plays a Maori tribeswoman, a Jewish/German aristocrat, a Hispanic journalist, an Indian party guest, and on top of all that, a Korean man.

Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, And James D’Arcy in Cloud Atlas

Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and James D’Arcy all play a variety of non-Caucasian characters in Cloud Atlas, but it was their roles as Korean men that stirred allegations of cultural insensitivity from an Asian media advocacy group, which alleged that the “bad yellowface make-up” made the men look like Star Trek aliens.

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s

If the Asian media advocacy group was insulted by Cloud Atlas, I wonder how it felt about Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In this 1961 rom-com, Mickey Rooney plays an angry buck-toothed Japanese landlord – a role that still draws controversy. Can you see why?

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman’s award-winning role as ‘Red’ in The Shawshank Redemption was originally intended for a white actor. He scored the role after receiving a glowing recommendation from an executive producer.

Fred Armisen On SNL

It wasn’t until white comedian Fred Armisen began regularly parodying President Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live that people noticed a lack of diversity within the SNL cast. Why, many wondered, were there no black or even Hispanic comedians on the show that might better fit the role?

Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia

Instead of casting an actual Persian (or even Persian-looking) man to play the lead in Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time, producers gave the role to Jake Gyllenhaal, who is of Swedish and Russian-Jewish descent. Those insulted by the casting choice cried racism, pointing out (validly) that the original video game character is much darker skinned than Gyllenhaal, and much less “Anglo-looking” as well.

Samuel L. Jackson In The Avengers

In the comic book adaption of The Avengers, Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury, a character who’s actually white in the original comic. Despite this, Jackson landed the role and even signed a deal with an option to play the character in up to nine superhero films.

Pam Grier In Jackie Brown

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino “reverse race-bent” to make a blaxploitation film out of the novel Rum Punch by changing many of the original white characters to black characters and altering some of the plot. The resulting movie, Jackie Brown, was a critically acclaimed success, and revitalized the career of Pam Grier (the lead).

Angelina Jolie In A Mighty Heart

Angelina Jolie received a lot of criticism for taking on the role of mixed-race French journalist Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. People just couldn’t understand why Jolie would be cast for a part that she so clearly didn’t fit, and had to wear so much dark, heavy make-up for. But in spite of the criticism, Mariane herself admitted that she was happy with the casting choice.

Everyone In 21

21 is the true story of a mostly Asian group of MIT students who counted cards in Las Vegas. So why then did the movie feature a mostly white group of characters? Because according to the film’s producer Dana Brunetti, there weren’t enough high profile Asian actors to fill the roles – a ridiculous statement when you consider that there aren’t enough high profile Asian actors because producers like Brunetti don’t ever cast them.

Jennifer Connelly In A Beautiful Mind

Fearing that audiences would disapprove of interracial marriage portrayed onscreen, A Beautiful Mind producers cast Jennifer Connelly to play John Nash’s wife (despite the fact that the real-life John Nash was married to a Hispanic woman).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra

In the 1963 film Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor plays the prominent role of Egyptian queen, but as a Caucasian woman, Taylor’s race-bending required that she wear dark makeup and, of course, all of the accoutrement of ancient Egypt.

John Wayne In The Conqueror

I’m not sure why John Wayne would ever think himself appropriate for the role of Genghis Khan in the 1956 film The Conqueror. Not only was Wayne not Asian, he was also not familiar with the culture and movie genre, having made a name and career for himself in mainly American Westerns.

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