On Hollywood Actors and Racial Diversity

Gods of Egypt premiered as the first big budget box-office flop of 2016 to the delight of many. It is just one film, in a string of many, in which very white actors were selected to take on roles that rightfully should have gone to people of color.

It is all the more satisfying that this movie flailed on the same weekend as the Oscars and the Academy’s struggle to confront an ongoing conversation about a lack of diversity in film. Actors filled the Dolby theater Sunday night, slightly nervous, but overwhelmingly supportive of the message behind #OscarsSoWhite.

best actress nominees 2016
2016 Academy Award Nominees (img via Oscars.com)

Consumers, viewers, and fans have repeatedly watched their favorite actors speak out about the urgent need for diversity in the industry. But it’s also important for audiences to critique those who don’t behave in ways that support their supposedly benevolent messages of inclusivity. Along with condemning studios and executives for their egregious missteps, we are long overdue for holding actors accountable for their participating in offensive casting and the subsequent inherent contribution to the erasure of people of color.  

The Gerard Butlers of the world may not consider themselves racist, but they are perfectly content with supporting and making money off of the status quo of white supremacy that makes it so difficult for Black, Asian, Latino and Indigenous actors to succeed in entertainment.

It isn’t necessary to dive deeply into the Hollywood historical archives to find examples of blatant whitewashing in Hollywood (though John Oliver recently did a fantastic segment covering precisely that). In the past five years alone there have been glaring instances of studios, directors, and actors excusing themselves for erasing people of color from stories in which race or nationality is actually integral to the narrative.

To defend his choice to cast super white Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott explained that he wouldn’t be able to fund a big budget film with a Middle Eastern lead.

Both Bale and Edgerton defended their roles by espousing the hackneyed idea of racial ambiguity in Ancient Egypt, a civilization that served as a crossroads for many nations and races at the time, and basically regurgitated the refrain that it is fine to leave race up to interpretation because it’s very possible that Moses or Ramses were green-eyed men with European features.

Edgerton and Bale in Exodus
Edgerton and Bale in Exodus

Last week, Rooney Mara stated that she regrets taking the role of indigenous character Tiger Lily in Pan, saying, “I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”

Will Rooney avoid making the same mistake because it didn’t feel pleasant to be villainized, or because she truly feels obligated as a decent human to use her influence to effect change in the industry?

She isn’t the only one to express remorse for a casting misstep after receiving backlash. Director Cameron Crowe apologized for casting Emma Stone as a multi-racial Hawaiian in Aloha, but only after an onslaught of criticism for multiple cultural insensitivities.

Even Lionsgate and director Alex Proyas issued an apology in November 2015, stating that the studio had failed to live up to its own standards of sensitivity and diversity when casting Gods of Egypt. It looks like everyone is living by the “It’s easier to ask forgiveness” model when it comes to doing the right thing in casting.

Gerard Butler, Joel Edgerton, Emma Stone, Cameron Crowe, Ridley Scott, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rooney Mara are just a few names on a long list of Hollywood elite who apparently give zero pause to the idea of taking a role, an opportunity for exposure, away from actors of color who are fighting just to be seen as viable options in the entertainment industry.

Bale is a great actor and audiences have been lucky enough to see him take on several phenomenal and iconic roles. His ability to be so visible has undoubtedly been assisted by the fact that so many leading roles are written for white, middle-aged men. He will likely never experience a period in his career in which it is difficult for him to find roles he is at least able to audition for.

It doesn’t actually seem likely that any of these people are completely inexperienced when it comes to the typical struggles of up-and-coming actors. What is clear, though, is that they have no idea what it’s like to have a microscopic pool of roles to audition for in the first place.

Which leads me to ask: why do these actors who have ample opportunity feel the need to also take the very few opportunities that are afforded to actors of color?

The most obvious answer is that they are self-serving and not all that interested in equality that might put a dent in their ability to cash in on their privilege.

They may not be racist; they may not dislike the people of any particular marginalized group, but they are more than delighted to receive checks from and participate in and contribute to a system that continually erases people of color from cultural narratives.

Pamela Chinawah

Pamela Chinawah

Pamela is a Southern California native who currently resides in Los Angeles. She works as a publicist for a variety of clients in food, film and lifestyle. Pamela is admittedly obsessed with media and pop culture as well as politics and social equality. Her deepest passions explore how mass media affect societal values and behavior.
Pamela Chinawah
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