Film, News & Commentary

Hollywood, racism and why being white means you have to play white

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Hollywood, in case you haven’t heard, has a bit of a race problem. Debates about racism in tinseltown have manifested in various ways over the years, from discussions around ethnical diversity in boardrooms to interpretations of films themselves – including accusations that history, or entire fictitious worlds, have been sprayed with a can of paint labelled “whitewash”.

Fresh allegations of whitewashing are at the heart of the finger-pointing this week levelled at director Cameron Crowe’s new film Aloha, which opened in Australian cinemas on Thursday and purportedly sets out to explore Hawaii’s culture and traditions. The problem is that its protagonist, “Allison Ng”, who is a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese, is played by Emma Stone – who is white as white can be.

“I’m so white. My hair grows out blonde, but my colouring is similar to that of a redhead,” the 26-year-old actor told website Refinery29. The rest of the cast of Aloha (which includes Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray) are also all white.

Thus, racism by way of Hollywood Central Casting – and a tsunami of bad publicity for a film that sounded a bit iffy from the outset (the title isn’t as cringe-worthy as an Australian movie titled ‘G’Day’ but it’s in the same ballpark). The Media Action Network for Asian Americans called on audiences to boycott the film but few people turned up anyway: it opened in US theatres last weekend to a lacklustre US $10 million, failing to crack the top five.

Crowe (whose films include Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire and We Bought a Zoo) issued a mea culpa. He took full responsibility for the casting decision in a piece published on his official website which is titled, appropriately enough, The controversy is particularly interesting in the context of last December’s Sony Hack, in the sense of what the hack didn’t reveal.

Leaked emails clearly showed Sony president Amy Pascal smelt a dud a mile away. “I’m never starting a movie again,” she wrote, “when the script is ridiculous and we all know it.” But the total emails asking what on earth one of the whitest girls in Hollywood was doing playing a mixed race character, or any way broaching the subject, totalled zero.

Is this a blind spot for Hollywood? One of the appeals of producing and directing is the idea of constructing worlds however and with whomever you choose. One of the allures of acting is the idea people can play characters who exist outside their own ideologies and experiences.

But we were reminded this week that “range” can definitely mean “racist.” Over the years an actor’s scope to play whoever they want has contracted, not expanded, and for good reason: being an actor does not grant anybody a free pass to fly in the face of cultural sensitivities. The entertainment industry needs to understand that – and this week’s white-stained lao provides a reminder.

Having said that, uncertainty and/or naivety remains with regards to issues around who can play who (if Emma Stone had predicted this sort of response, she would presumably never have signed on). But certain rules virtually everybody has learned to abide by. Blackface is a no-no – though Chris Lilley gave something very close to it a red hot go in last year’s Jonah From Tonga and subsequently copped a backlash.

Some areas are particularly contentious. Parody for example is a prickly one. British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s famous shtick as an etiquette-destroying Kazakh journalist in 2006’s Borat (full title – Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) deflected the onus away from himself and onto the real-life people he engaged with (unlike Lilley, who riffed with real Tongans playing fictitious characters).

Red necks and college students reacted in racist ways to Baron Cohen’s racist creation (who was never meant to be taken seriously anyway) meaning the ends arguably justified the means and no real offense was caused. The people of Kazakhstan thought differently.

Comedians who take on roles of the ilk of Baron Cohen’s or Lilley’s (or the most jaw-dropping of them all: Mickey Rooney’s notorious performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) must do so with the understanding that they will likely be defending themselves to people for whom words such as “satire” will mean diddly squat. The fallout over Aloha provides actors a simple reminder: with few exceptions being white means you have to play white, and there are very good reasons for that.

10 responses to “Hollywood, racism and why being white means you have to play white

  1. Australians need to be careful about gloating about Hollywood racism. American films regularly have non-white actors playing parts that are not racially specific. This rarely happens in Australia… if an Asian actor is in a film, generally the role specifically requires an Asian. It is only recently that we see aboriginal actors playing roles that could equally have gone to a white actor. Things are better than they were, but we still have a long way to go before we would be in a position to take the higher moral ground.

  2. This is such a difficult area. What is “being white”? I look white (I think), but only because I look very similar to my blue-eyed Anglo mother and not my Maori father. So, could I play “white” as well as “mixed race” despite not really looking “mixed race”. There is also the possible additional “criteria” about the extent to which I “identify” as Maori.

    We are virtually all technically “mixed race”, but we are fixated by how we “look”. I’m sure you could find a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese person who looks like Emma Stone, “as white as white can be”. If such a person were an actor, would they qualify?

    As someone of “mixed race” who thinks the term and concept is outdated and, to some extent, meaningless, I think we might need to loosen up a bit on our “cultural sensitivities” in this area. Otherwise, with more and more “mixed marriages” and “mixed children” (two more outdated and redundant terms), it will become increasingly complicated to work out what we are meant to look like. A bit of “colour-blindness” wouldn’t go astray.

  3. I find it interesting that this reaction is the opposite of what happened when Idris Elba’s name came up as the most likely next James Bond. If this character has to look mixed race then Bond should look white to be consistent on the basis that the character as written is white. What seems to be being said is that if someone has a non-white name then the face has to match, but if it’s a white name, then it doesn’t matter. Personally I think we’re getting too politically correct (and swaying too far towards positive discrimination) – it seems logical to me that film makers be granted some artistic licence and be able to use having a disconnect between peoples’ perceptions and a particular character as another tool to get audiences thinking (or simply to pick the best actor, as seems to be the case with Elba). While we don’t want rascist movies, I don’t think having such a disconnect should automatically be condemned as rascist.

  4. The logical conclusion of identity politics is that everyone is locked into their particular identity for all purposes forever – not really in anybody’s best interests. Clearly, Linda Hunt shouldn’t have played Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously since she wasn’t male. She did a bloody good job though, didn’t she?

    Whatever happened to the Enlightenment?

  5. I’m guessing there aren’t too many quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese actors actually available at the moment. At least any with any “star” pulling power. If a black actor was to portray Obama (one day) then would that be racist towards white people? Similarly in a future Tiger Woods biography, would selecting a black person playing Tiger be racist towards Asians (Thais in particular)? The days of blackface are over (which some exceptions) so let’s not get too precious about racial crossovers on film please. BTW – a black person playing Bond, James Bond, has some appeal. Might have to lose the ancestral home in Scotland however.

  6. “The Media Action Network for Asian Americans called on audiences to boycott the film but few people turned up anyway”

    … and if they had turned up the boycott would have been a success?

  7. May not sting as much if there were other main Asian of Hawaiian main non-white actors in the movie….now that is the main reason Hawaii Five 0 got renewed despite the two main actors being white….well, the rest of the cast is essentially non-white (although folks in America may not find the term non-white politically correct, here in Singapore non-white is a perfectly acceptable term to describe Asians!

  8. There are issues getting too carried away with the specific shade of colour of a person’s skin. Aboriginal identity in Australia is mainly cultural and not dependent on what proportion of what genes are involved. Hence blond haired blue eyed aboriginal people (and they genuinely are as defined by culture). And people with ‘coloured’ skin who don’t identify culturally as aboriginal despite having that genetic background.

    This is actually better than the racial definitions used in the USA by some indigenous tribes that say a person is not American Indian if they have less than a quarter of the right genetic profile – even if they have spent all their life within that community. And vastly better than the US approach of defining anyone who has the slightest look of African origins (or Mexican/Latin) as ‘non-white’. And what goes with that is the sensitivity of casting anyone who looks ‘non-white’ in main stream movies.

    The whole idea that people are defined by colour rather than culture is something we should all be shedding.

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