The New Blackface

By Hind Berji

Remember Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Audrey Hepburn slowly walking down Fifth Avenue at dawn in her sleek Givenchy gown, peeking into the Tiffany’s window display? Remember her eccentric bathtub couch, or her funny cat named—what else—Cat? Do you recall Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi, her greedy Asian landlord, played by Mickey Rooney, a white actor? The buckteeth, buffoonish, clumsy mannerisms, tapered eyes, and bumbling accent can go unnoticed when you’re watching the classic film through a whitewashed lens.

We’re appalled but not all that surprised at old Hollywood’s penchant for using blackface or yellowface, but we don’t seem to take issue with the modern equivalent. This practice hasn’t really changed—instead of portraying Asians through heinous caricatures or demonizing Native peoples, we now have white actors playing these characters. Thus we are met with a greater challenge in today’s film industry: preventing the erasure of culturally diverse characters and actors entirely from the plot.

Even when diverse characters are included in scripts, white actors portray them. The most fundamental issue is the idea that racial integration in the entertainment, or any creative-based industry is not innate. We are taught to look at white as a default race, which is why we often cast white actors in roles written for people of color.

It isn’t necessary to showcase people of color in a sugarcoated, positive light. Recognition should be genuine and well deserved, but if minorities in the entertainment industry are not given a fair chance, how can they be judged on merit? This seems to be a major reason why critics of #OscarsSoWhite had a problem with Spike Lee’s call for a mandatory Hollywood quota system. Celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith were so outraged at the lack of African American acknowledgement that they called for an Oscars overhaul and boycott.

Why all the fuss about the Academy Awards? For starters, for the second consecutive year, all 20 nominees for the ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ categories were white. Statistics only confirm the topic Hollywood studio execs have been stalling on for decades: 94% of the more than 6,000 Academy voters are white.

Chris Rock contributed to the criticism in his role as the 2016 host by stating, “If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” and, “It’s the 88th Academy Awards which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.” From there on out, Rock dedicated almost all of his airtime to taking jabs at the diversity issue while adhering to the Academy’s idea of a compliant, and, most importantly, black host.

Whoopie Goldberg had a similar understanding of the issue: “Why is this a conversation we only have once a year? Every year we get all fired up, and then the rest of the year nobody says anything.” She has a major point here. Why do we only show outrage at this issue when we see it dressed in Valentino, waltzing across the Dolby Theatre?

There were no people of color nominated in the most popular categories at the Academy Awards, but that isn’t to say that no person of color won big on Oscar night. British Indian filmmaker Asif Kapadia won an award for best documentary feature on Amy Winehouse. Pakistani activist, journalist, and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won for her film on honorary killings titled A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. And, for the second year in a row (the first was for Birdman in 2015), Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu received an Oscar for best achievement in directing for The Revenant.

Iñárritu stated, “The debate is not only about black and white people, I think diversity really includes brown…we are also yellow, Native American, Latin American…the complexity of the society of the world is much more than one or the other.” He went on to muse that there is room for ‘brown’ Oscars. Turns out that the model for the actual trophy was Mexican actor, screenwriter, and director, Emilio Fernández. Oscar is brown, after all.

We cannot progress professionally or politically when our entertainment channels only recognize and celebrate a white population.

MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

The true representational issue isn’t that there are a scant number of diverse actors in the first place; it’s the entertainment industry’s refusal to recognize and utilize talented people of color.

Moreover, this is primarily an American issue. How can a multicultural society have such disinclination towards representational roles? We cannot progress professionally or politically when our entertainment channels only recognize and celebrate a white population.

The argument has been made that a well-known, white celebrity will give a movie more commercial success than an unknown minority actor, but that argument is fallacious when you look at the careers of highly esteemed black, Latin, and Asian-American actors worldwide. Furthermore, the global appeal of diversified actors can only improve the commercial success of an otherwise solely American box office hit.

Recent films that dipped into the whitewashing pool, on the other hand, have failed tremendously at the box office. Director Joe Wright’s take on the boy who never grew up in Pan featured a white, non-native Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. After a meager $15.3 million opening weekend in North America, it hardly seemed like the $150 million budget was worth it. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha tried to pass off Emma Stone as a half-Asian native Hawaiian woman. It made only $37 million globally. Johnny Depp’s pathetic justification of playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger (he claims to have Native blood) didn’t suffice, either. And who can forget the Scandinavian Prince of Persia himself, Jake Gyllenhaal? We all know how well that did in theaters.

M. Knight Shyamalan’s version of the uber popular Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, featured white actors who played characters who are of Asian heritage. The villains, however, were portrayed by dark-skinned actors.

When Ridley Scott was asked why his movie Exodus: Gods and Kings didn’t include Middle Eastern actors for the roles of Ramses and Moses, he responded that it would be impossible to fund a film “…and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get financed.”

It seems that the only time we see Middle Eastern and Asian actors of Arab, Indian, or Persian backgrounds get decent roles are when they play terrorists, kidnappers, or thugs. It doesn’t take much imagination to vilify these characters in fiction since we already do that in reality.

As Iñárritu noted, “I think one of the problems that we are suffering from is there are no moderate platforms to talk about it deeply…that in a way it’s deciding the destinies of people around the world — not only here — by the color of their skin.”

This topic runs deeper than skin tone—it was never just about race. And it shouldn’t be. It’s also about sexuality, and gender, and disability, and economic background; it’s certainly about the ageist attitudes of an industry obsessed with youth. Storytelling, in all its visual and popular forms, is powerful. It can be ideological, and it can be exceptionally nuanced. We can’t accept an all-white narrative in mainstream media even when the stories are written about people of color. We’re past the days of silent pictures. Why can’t we hear the marginalized voices?