Whitewashing: An issue of Representation and Respect

Due to my position as a British born POC of South Asian heritage, the opportunity to study film at degree level has opened my eyes to unknown areas of the industry, on and off-screen. Breathing, living and studying Film is what I do as a student and whenever I come across the term ‘whitewash’ or ‘whitewashing’ I let out an exhausted sigh. If you’re not familiar with whitewashing it’s a term predominantly thrown around in the Film industry which essentially means to race bend or change a character of colour. This isn’t going to be an article where I talk about and give the history of whitewashing but instead, from my position as a person of colour, my opinion and my own view. To me this is important for two reasons: Firstly, the number of discussions on stan or woke blogs or social media users that are based entirely without fact is infuriating and so I felt it was my responsibility to write an article of my opinion whilst remaining in the realms of fact. Secondly, I am sick of seeing non-coloured people creating clickbait articles and threads on this sensitive topic, because they are not voices which represent me and my experience. They lose sight of what is vital and the areas of whitewashing which are truly important to address.

Whitewashing 1

For a start representation is key. Respecting source material is key. Valuing history is key. One of my greatest concerns in the film industry is when history and source material is thrown out using the excuse of “adaptation”. If you’re not going to respect history and source material, knowing full well it has links to a culture why even bother adapting it? Films such as Ghost in the Shell, Gods of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Last Airbender, and Prince of Persia all rightly flopped due in large part to the negative reaction to their disrespect of history and source material. Representation is key but Hollywood doesn’t seem to care much about it, at the end of the day as long as studios and investors are making money and the general audience are enjoying these blockbusters all is well in their world. As a comic book fan living in the golden age of comic book movies I feel as if studios such as Marvel and Warner Bros/DC are the only ones trying to represent minorities. It doesn’t matter about being a fan of either it’s about the representation of a character. It filled me with equal joy to see the diverse casts of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman making box office history. Diversity should not be included to make sales or pander to the so-called ‘political correctness’ but only should be included if it fits well with the storytelling and intention.

Marvel Studios Hall H Panel

It is important however to remain consistent on this topic, as the amount of backlash and outrage never seems to equate truly to the change being made. The uproarious backlash following Mary Jane turning from white to black was baffling to me as the colour of Mary Jane has never been integral to her character nor her culture, yet audiences were fine with Ghost in the Shell being whitewashed because of the blessing it had from its creator and simply because it’s a manga? The culture, the references, and the art is Japanese, it is a Japanese creation and it should have been respected as a Japanese product. When a character is taken out of its culture and native heritage that is the problem, Mary Jane being white and living in New York means nothing when white is never underrepresented in the media. Black Panther has never been about political correctness, Wonder Woman has never been about spreading a feminist movement, Moonlight winning the best picture at the Oscars was never about a secret agenda. All these films with minorities as leads are not made for political reasons but for the sole focus of representation. It’s key now and it’s key for future generations.

Moreover, stereotyping and typecasting are major problems within Hollywood, as what studio wants to stereotype in this day and age? The Doctor Strange controversy regarding the Ancient One was a heated discussion, however, people don’t seem to understand the reason why it was done. Believe me it aches to see Hollywood whitewash a minority role and seemingly just for the benefit of money, so for this reason do I agree with the whitewashing of The Ancient One? I do not. But for the reason of respect and attempting not to stereotype an Asian character characterized by a white beard and being a wise old mentor, surely there are better ways to represent Asian culture, other than the typical ‘Magical Asian’ trope? Yet, should the billion-dollar studio of Marvel have had a better way to write the screenplay and avoid falling into this trap? Yes of course. You can avoid all those stereotypes and even subvert the ‘Magical Asian’ trope whilst still using an Asian actor which would’ve opened a lot of comedic avenues. Yet, studios do not want to offend the largest box office monster that is China because, well, Money talks.

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Take Chris Morris’s ‘Four Lions’, which portrays a satirical black comedy about five Muslim men wanting to become suicide bombers. As funny and dark the film is, it examines the stereotype that brown Muslim men are terrorists. However, what makes this a successful film despite the insensitive time of its release (3 years after the 7/7 bombings), the film is effective and goes against the stereotype that Muslims are terrorists when the themes of friendship, love and de-radicalisation are strongly shown throughout the film. The stereotype was needed in this specific film because it had to fit the genre of satire and black comedy, but it was also played against due to the clever writing of the script which showed that the friends had compassion, family, unity, and community intertwined in their lives, something that the religion of Islam strongly represents. The thoughtful and dark ending of the film challenged the views of radicalization and why young Muslim men are radicalised in the first place, the constant themes of struggle and ideology are portrayed even in the surroundings the characters exist in, a poor town, the misunderstanding and brainwashing off young men and the hate preacher. Chris Morris didn’t direct a film with the intention being to offend, he directed a film to show how you can work with a stereotype and yet also have a compelling message. Marvel and any other studio that whitewashes a minority character to avoid “stereotyping” are spewing lies, because at the end of the day it’s all about the money.

Whitewashing 4

Another example of a hit movie plagued by whitewashing is Christopher Nolan’s summer hit ‘Dunkirk’ due to its incorrect representation of Dunkirk. My problem doesn’t lie with a US director tackling an event that is part of British history, but my concern lies in the fabricated and historical inaccuracy of it. Under the British colony, the Royal Indian Army and under the French army, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and other middle eastern colonies weren’t portrayed in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Even so the film acknowledged people of colour within scenes if it wasn’t for the colonies under Britain, the evacuation of Dunkirk wouldn’t even be possible without our allies under the British colony. The British colonies that were drafted into the war were crucial in the evacuation of Dunkirk, they should have never been misrepresented and the respect we give to our veterans shouldn’t be effected by the colour of their skin – but their service to the country. If there isn’t a proper portrayal of our veterans and our soldiers that fought for our country, is it even worth giving them the respect for that? If Hollywood and film-makers can adapt other wars with accurate historical context, this event isn’t any different to the others.

Whitewashing 5

But that’s not to say Hollywood completely diminishes minority roles and hates us, because they don’t. The upcoming live action remake of Aladdin is a prime example of this, albeit fictional, the clear influence of the middle east and south Asia are seen through its story and animation. The Sultan’s Palace is based on the Taj Mahal located in India, the word Genie is derived from Jinn (a supernatural being) related to Islamic theology and mythology, Jasmine or it’s other form ‘Yasmine’ is a Persian/Arabian name and Aladdin and Jafar are Arabian too. Despite my previously mentioned opinions on their handling of the Ancient One, Disney is handling this really well, credit being given where credit is due. Despite the controversy of Naomi Scott claiming British and south Asian heritage, people need to understand this film is fictional. The film takes elements of different regions of Asia and the Middle East combining and creating a fairytale that’s unique from the likes of Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White, it’s creating a fictional story whilst also exploring culture. People that nitpick and question the authenticity of the film are delusional if they don’t understand the progression it’s taken for Hollywood to even consider a live action Aladdin. Can you imagine the marketing of this film, especially when it comes to costumes and cosplay with little white girls dressing like Jasmine and little white boys dressing like Aladdin? It’s going to be hilarious when people complain about this too!

I don’t mean to preach or sound like an SJW, but my problem lies with fabricated facts and biased opinions. Whitewashing and Stereotyping are major problems but fighting fire with fire isn’t going to diminish the problem, making a vocal change, representing minorities through not only Film but other forms of media will also help change the problem. Rather than complain, celebrate the culture and progress Hollywood is making in its diversity, with Moonlight winning the best Oscar picture last year and Get Out also making box office history and breaking records. This is a good time for change, not just for minorities but also for Women and the LGBTQ+ community, with strong directors like Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins helming huge blockbusters. I full heartedly believe there needs to be less aggression when it comes to topics like this. Aggression isn’t going to make anything better. Instead, make a change and voice your opinion, be smart and be factual, don’t be a sheep and follow the flock.

Written by: Robby – @robbysleep on Twitter



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