Photo: REX USA/AGF s.r.l./Rex.
So, Variety is reporting that Rooney Mara has been cast to play Tiger Lily — one of the most problematic characters in film — in an upcoming live-action remake of Peter Pan. It hardly comes as any surprise that many people object to the casting of a white woman playing one of the few Native American characters on screen (even if that character is a total stereotype). Then again, Hollywood isn't exactly known for its sensitivity to audience outrage regarding casting, especially around issues of race and ethnicity.
Warner Bros. appears to have anticipated this controversy — and rightly so. According to Variety, "The world being created is multi-racial/international — and a very different character than previously imagined." That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. In fact, it sounds nice! In order to make the Peter Pan story into something progressive and relatable instead of an outdated, racist mess, you'd basically have to rewrite the entire thing. Re-imagining that world in a way that doesn't treat Native American characters like mythical creatures and preserving the core of the story while casting in a modern, colorblind way (à la Shonda Rhimes, perhaps) would restore a lot of our faith in Hollywood. It might work, but we're putting an emphasis on the might, because this is dangerous territory and it could also go very, very wrong. Re-imagining a story to remove unfortunate racial stereotypes is a worthwhile endeavor, but re-imagining a Native American character as a white character is not a step in the right direction, unless it's coupled by a lot of bold choices in the opposite direction. Almost everyone in mainstream cinema is already conceived of as white, to begin with...so, that's not a very imaginative way of doing anything, is it?
First, there's the issue that Native American people are hugely underrepresented in Hollywood as actors (and as characters). In a perfect world, people of a variety of different races would be cast in a variety of different roles — roles that aren't defined by the character's racial identity. But, that's not the world we live in. Instead, many non-white actors and actresses only get leading roles in movies that specifically deal with racial themes or require a specific ethnicity to be represented, for some reason. So, it only aggravates the problem when even for those roles, white actors are cast.
Reportedly, the studio also looked at Lupita Nyong'o and Adele Exarchopoulos for the part. And, the film isn't entirely cast yet, but so far, all of the leading roles that have been cast have gone to white actors. We don't want to devalue the idea of re-imagining the way race is portrayed in the Peter Pan story and in cinema in general, but so far, we aren't seeing that happening. So, we are wary. We'll keep our fingers crossed that somehow this remake morphs into an amazingly thoughtful, carefully crafted take on a traditionally problematic story — but as far as we can see, its producers and director are skating on thin ice.