Whitewashing In Hollywood: Films That Cast Non-Blacks In Black Roles

December 18, 2014  |  
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Whitewashing has been one of Hollywood’s worst habits since the movie business was born. For years white actors have portrayed characters of color and in 2014 we’re still seeing this trend flourish. Here are a few major films that caused a ruckus when they cast non-Blacks in Black roles.

“Exodus: Gods And Kings”

“Exodus: Gods And Kings” has been billed as one of the most anticipated movies of the holiday season but it has also come under tremendous fire. The Ridley Scott directed film was taken to task because four white actors were cast in the lead to play the Hebrew and ancient Egyptian characters. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the studio that produced it, defended the all white cast but there has been a growing call to boycott the film.

“Imitation Of Life”

“Imitation of Life” was a 1933 novel that dealt with the issues of race, class and gender and it was eventually adapted for film. In the book, Sarah Jane was a very fair-skinned Black woman who was able to pass for white as a young adult. But when it came time to cast for the 1959 film, Susan Kohner, born to a Mexican mother and Austrian father, landed the role of Sarah Jane. The role helped Kohner earn an Oscar nomination as well as two Golden Globes.

“Nina”

When Zoe Saldana was chosen to play legendary blues singer Nina Simone, a lot of people were outraged. Many felt Saldana, who was born to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, looked nothing like Simone, known for her brown skin and wide nose. The “Columbiana” star wore makeup in the film to darken her skin and spoke about the controversy that started once she landed the role. “I’m human,” Saldana said. “I wish I was made of steel and so certain things wouldn’t affect me. So it did affect me but I couldn’t let that deter me from doing what I needed to do. Just like everybody else I feel very strongly about Nina Simone, and that [this] was a story that needed to be told.”

“Cleopatra” (1963)

Elizabeth Taylor was a legendary actress who took on many parts in her career, some to her benefit, others not so much. The later was the case in 1963 when she landed the lead role in “Cleopatra.” The film was marred with problems from the start. Originally slated to cost $2 million to produce, it ran over budget by $29 million and almost bankrupted the studio. The problems between co-stars Taylor and Richard Burton only made things worse, but the film ended up earning nine Oscar nominations and won four, despite the obvious lack of Egyptian presence.

“Cleopatra” (2015)

Elizabeth Taylor isn’t going to be the only white actress to play Cleopatra. Angelina Jolie has reportedly signed on the play the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. But it looks like this film may be a family affair for the Jolie-Pitt household. Brad Pitt and their six children are rumored to be tied to the film as well. “Their whole family life is rooted in films but Brad and Ange didn’t want the children to follow in their footsteps,” an insider said. “However, acting is in their genes, and it could turn out to be the start of something big for the next generation.”

“A Mighty Heart”

Angelina Jolie is slated to play ancient Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and she certainly has experience playing a minority. That’s because for the 2008 film “A Mighty Heart,” Jolie portrayed Mariane Pearl, widow of “Wall Street Journal” reporter Daniel Pearl. Daniel was beheaded by the Taliban in 2002 and Marianne’s memoir gave a harrowing and detailed account of the search of her husband. Several  eyebrows were raised when Jolie was tapped to play Marianne, the French-born woman of Afro-Cuban descent. Jolie donned darker skin and a curly wig in the film.

“Noah”

The story of Noah has been told in Hollywood before and the latest version hit theaters earlier this year to mixed reviews and controversy. “Noah,” which stars Russell Crowe as the lead, made headlines for its lack of Blacks and people of color in the film. Co-screenwriter Ari Handel addressed the issue. “”From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race,” he said. “What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise.”

“Stuck”

The 2007 film “Stuck” is loosely based on the true story of Chante Mallard, a Black woman who hit a homeless man with her car and left him to die on her windshield. The drunk driving accident happened back in 2001 but when it was retold by Hollywood six years later, Mena Suvari was cast in the lead role. And to add insult to injury, Suvari donned cornrows in the film as if to hint at the character’s true ethnicity. Mallard was sentenced to 50 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2027.

“Othello”

William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” play has been adapted for the big screen numerous times. The most popular remake starred famed actor Laurence Olivier who infamously played the Moorish general in blackface. Olivier received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Thirty years later, Laurence Fishburne was cast as the first Black actor to portray Othello in a major motion picture release. Although it received positive reviews, “Othello” tanked at the box office.

“The Hunger Games”

“The Hunger Games” helped turn Jennifer Lawrence into an international star. She’s gained critical acclaim for her portrayal of the butt-kicking Katniss Everdeen. But the popular film was originally a book and in it, Everdeen is described as non-white with dark, olive skin. When it came time to find actors for the role, producers didn’t even think twice about having any race other in the lead role. The casting call went out asking for white women between the ages of 15 and 20.

“The Human Stain”

The novel “The Human Stain” tells the story of Coleman Silk, a former professor who is accused of racism by two Black students. Little does anyone know that Silk, who has been passing for  a white Jew for much of his life, is actually African American. The story was brought to the big screen in 2003 with Anthony Hopkins as Silk. The film was bashed for its miscasting in the lead role which made it less powerful than the novel itself.

“Warm Bodies”

When author Isaac Marion wrote the novel “Warm Bodies,” the character Nora was half Ethiopian. But when the zombie romance novel was brought to the big screen last year, Analeigh Tipton was cast as Nora. Writer Marion addressed the issue and confessed that studio execs had no interest in casting a Black actress. “They paid more attention to the actor’s personalities than their physical appearances,” he said.

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