The poster for the 2015 release of Pan — the live-action, big -screen reimagining of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan — shocked many with the controversial choice of Rooney Mara for the role of Tiger Lily.
There’s no denying that Rooney Mara is a talented actress, but that doesn’t necessarily make her the best choice to represent a role for a Native American character.
According to Variety, Warner Bros. also considered Lupita Nyong'o and Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s Adèle Exarchopoulos. Again, these are two exceptional talents, but probably not the most appropriate choices. It’s especially puzzling that a white actress was called on to play a Native American character in a film where director Joe Wright (according to The Wrap) set out to create a world that is “very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.”
Having a white actress play a character described as a person of color doesn’t sound like it’s challenging any pre-conceived notions. It doesn’t sound multi-racial at all.
In fact, the idea of a multi-racial world isn’t even apparent in the film’s teaser trailer. If the clip below is representative of the movie as a whole, then Neverland is populated almost exclusively by white characters.
A more immediate example of Hollywood whitewashing is the forthcoming holiday blockbuster Exodus: Gods and Kings. Whitewashing of characters in Biblical epics is nothing new, with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner playing the Hebrew Moses and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses respectively in The Ten Commandments back in 1956. Given the fact that Ridley Scott decided to cast Christian Bale and the blond and blue-eyed Australian Joel Edgerton in those same roles proves that not much has changed in almost 60 years.
The rest of the leads are played by Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and John Turturro, with minority actors like Ben Kingsley and Indira Varma in supporting roles.
As the movie's trailer demonstrates, apparently all it takes for an Australian actor to play an Egyptian character is eyeliner and a whole lot of bronzer.
People took to Twitter to demonstrate their anger over the controversial casting with the hashtag #BoycottExodus.
Director Ridley Scott defended his casting decision by telling Variety, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
However, does that reasoning really hold up?
“Unfortunately, it does hold up, for the worst reasons,” explains Princeton professor Brian Herrera, who's currently working on a scholarly history of casting. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for ‘Mohammad so-and-so.’ There’s a kind of soft racism where people say ‘we would love to cast [an actor of color] but we just can’t.’”
Herrera points out that part of the self-perpetuating cycle stems from filmmakers feeling pressure to cast actors that have already proven to be bankable and some of that is based on “a conservative expectation of what the audiences will and won’t accept.” By that same token, Herrera describes the casting of Exodus as “a missed opportunity” where three of the leads could have been cast with bankable, established stars “and then an Arab actor could have been brought in to play Moses.”
The same could probably said for Pan, given that the film was already bolstered by box-office heavyweight Hugh Jackman, giving the studio some wiggle room to take a chance on an unknown Native American actress.
However, if filmmakers are going to continue to cite financial excuses to exclude people of color from playing roles based on and written for people of color, then maybe movements to boycott films that perpetuate the soft racism of casting will be just the thing that convinces filmmakers to hire more inclusive casts.