Due to segregation and the lack of actors of colour, Hollywood’s mainstream starring roles were monopolised by white actors in the early 20th century. White actors who played people of colour would often alter their appearances, wearing blackface or yellowface when portraying black and Asian characters. This was usually accompanied by exaggerated accents and ethnocentric perceptions of minority groups, which contributed to the spread of harmful racial stereotypes. These days the problem is not blackface and yellowface anymore, but rather the inverse problem: whitewashing.
Whitewashing in film is the practice in which white actors are cast in historically non-white roles, downplaying the significance and roles of other cultures. Nowadays non-black minorities are the biggest victims to whitewashing – Asians, Native Americans and Polynesians are not allowed to be the heroes of even their own stories, with roles frequently given to white actors in makeup to appear more ‘ethnic’, or the entire cultural identity removed from the story. It is often done to shoehorn in a star with the belief that actors of colour would not be successful in the box office. As put by the Ridley Scott, the director of the biblical Exodus: Gods and Kings: “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.” His film, however, starred many generic white actors with zero box office draw in roles as Egyptians and Arabs.
It could be argued that everyone has their artistic license in casting and interpretation of stories, and the colour of one’s skin shouldn’t dictate what roles an actor should be able to play. Besides, acting is about portraying someone you are not, and a great performance in a movie shouldn’t be downplayed by whitewashing allegations.
However, this argument only works to the detriment of diversity in Hollywood. Hollywood is an industry dominated by white actors, with limited stories being written about people of colour. The rarity of Asian Hollywood stars, coupled with actors like Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, or Daniel Kaluuya having their big roles in movies where the character must be played by a black actor, shows that there is a lack of generic roles played by actors of colour. For many actors of colour, the only available roles are those written for minorities and not roles where the characters race bears no significance.
Least of all in stories about people of colour, Hollywood still puts white actors in the foreground rescuing people of colour from their plight. The white saviour narrative comes from Eurocentric racism, and the colonialist views of white people as morally superior to other races. Such stories are self-serving, as the white saviour takes over the narrative, while the characters of colour end up becoming props around the white character, only serving to perpetuate ideas of otherness and unimportance of people of colour.
However, being associated with whitewashing has rightfully become a big deal recently. Calls to boycott have led to many films bombing in the box office and others being panned for lack of authenticity. With the lure of the Chinese box office causing pressure on filmmakers to include more Asian stars in movies and actors like Ed Skrein stepping down from roles that are about minority characters, film diversity is expected to flourish in the future.