To a general rolling of eyes and shrugging of shoulders, Alex Proyas' "Gods of Egypt" beats its big silly golden CG wings into theaters this week. Aside from the fact that it looks… not very good, the film has stirred up what little interest it has mostly due to the casting of Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites and a host of other white actors as Egyptian deities and demigods. Among all of them, Chadwick Boseman's presence seems at best token and at worst heartbreaking, because he deserves a lot better than "Gods of Egypt." In any case, coupled with the #oscarssowhite snafu continuing to unfold, John Oliver recently picked up on the mutinous mood with to regards to Hollywood's practice of whitewashing.
There are a few different degrees of Hollywood whitewash: the mildest, probably because it's the most invisible, involves the ethnicity of a character changing before filming has even begun, so that a white actor can play the role as a white person. Most of the individuals involved in the casino scam that "21" was based on, for example, were Asian, but in the film they're white from the outset. William Mapother was for some reason cast as a character in "World Trade Center" whose real-life counterpart is black.
The second, more problematic degree is when a white actor is cast in a non-white role that has not been explicitly rewritten as white. So arguably both Ben Affleck and Clea DuVall in "Argo" are guilty here (the CIA officer Affleck's character is based on is half-Mexican, DuVall's is Japanese-American), as is Emma Stone's part in "Aloha," (although the latter's invisible Asian heritage seems like a really inconsequential detail that could easily have been removed from the character with no major harm done). But hey, at least they didn't slant her eyes!
Which brings us third-degree whitewashing, in which a white actor plays a non-white role and undergoes an indefensible physical transformation to do so. The racism of blackface, brownface, yellowface, altering eye shape and hair type, exaggerating accents and gestures and appropriating cultural signifiers along stereotypical ethnic lines has a long, unhappy tradition in Hollywood cinema. So most of the examples below come from this category —if you dare, explore these 20 instances of variously egregious Hollywood whitewashing. Get ready to cringe.
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror" (1956)
Now notorious as a film that allegedly gave many of its participants cancer (it was shot on a site irradiated by nuclear test fallout) and that was suppressed by producer Howard Hughes for decades after its release, famous flop "The Conqueror" features perhaps the most egregious miscasting in history, in which drawling cowboy archetype John Wayne lobbied for, and won, the role of the Mongol warlord. Even at the time, he looked absolutely ridiculous.
What They Said At The Time: "An illusion persists that this Genghis Khan is merely Hopalong Cassidy in Cathay… [Wayne is] constantly being unhorsed by such lines as, 'you are beautiful in your wrath.'" [NYT]
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" (2007)
It's a shame that perhaps Jolie's single best performance, as the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in this Michael Winterbottom rendition of the infamous mid 2000s incident, should be marred by the specter of whitewashing. To be fair, finding an actress of the precise ethnic mix as the French-born, Afro-Chinese-Cuban-Dutch Pearl would have been a struggle, and without someone like Jolie, this movie would never have been made. But the effort to make her physically resemble Pearl, right down to afro-ising her hair, feels at best unfortunate.
What They Said At The Time:"Though Jolie sports a big belly, a high-coiffed hairstyle and a very challenging accent, [this is] a subdued, carefully considered portrait of a woman caught between premature grief and persistent hope." [Variety]
Rex Harrison as the King in "Anna and the King of Siam" (1945); Yul Brynner as the King in "The King and I" (1951)
Both the British Harrison and the Russian Brynner received great plaudits for their respective turns as King Mongkut of Siam, in the 1945 John Cromwell version and the 1951 film adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, both of which were based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel. The fuzziness of the nationalities and ethnicities involved here means that the 1999 version, "Anna and the King" starring Chow Yun Fat as Mongkut, seems like a model of racial sensitivity by comparison, though Chow was born over a thousand miles and several countries away in Hong Kong.
What They Said At The Time: "Rex Harrison shines particularly in his American film debut. It’s a sustained characterization of the King of Siam that makes the role real." [Variety]
Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)
The sine qua non of classic racist Hollywood stereotypes. Rooney's performance as Holly Golightly's "comically" exasperated Japanese upstairs neighbor now rightly lives in infamy as a turn that torpedoes the uncomplicated enjoyment of an otherwise delightful film. Rooney was allegedly "heartbroken" over his performance's recent reevaluation as horribly racist, but that didn't stop the quarter-Filipino Rob Schneider from more or less channeling it in a highly dubious role in the highly dubious "I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry."
What They Said At The Time: "Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic." [NYT]
Boris Karloff in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932); Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in "The Face of Fu Manchu" (1965), "The Brides of Fu Manchu" (1966), "The Vengeance of Fu Manchu" (1967), "The Blood of Fu Manchu" (1968), "The Castle of Fu Manchu" (1969)
Only two of several actors to have portrayed the ultimate Yellow Peril/Oriental menace (Swedish/American Warner Oland, who would later play Charlie Chan, being among the others), Karloff and Lee were both British actors associated with villainous roles. So it's perhaps not so surprising that they both played this enduringly popular, wildly racist character —Karloff's turn, which also featured a yellowface Myrna Loy as his daughter, is maybe the most egregious, but Lee's five films sporting the droopy mustache means he's probably more associated with it now.
What They Said At The Time: "[on 'Face'] Christopher Lee, as the old evil one, complete with waxy mustache, looks and sounds like an overgrown Etonite. Fu Manchu, fooey." [NYT]