10 Notable Examples from Hollywood's Checkered History with Racebending
In theory, we live in a post-racial society. Yes, racism still exists, but we’re not supposed to talk about it anymore. The most powerful man in the world is black, right? So everything is fine. We can move on. That is, until Hollywood casting directors mess with the races of our favorite characters. Then we blow shit up. Mostly internet message boards, but still. It’s the 21st century version of rioting. The act of changing the ethnicity of a character to one different from the one in the source material is called racebending, all thanks to one very crappy movie…
The Last Airbender
Until 2008, it was called white-washing or race-lifting. Then Hollywood’s most prominent ethnically-Indian director took a popular ethnically-diverse cartoon and cast a whole bunch of white people. Boycotts were threatened, and even the Godfather of movies, Roger Ebert, expressed his extreme disappointment. There was so much uproar about these ridiculous and unnecessary casting choices that the success of the movie was threatened before it even started filming. So M. Night Shyamalan relented and recast on of the roles with Dev Patel … as the bad guy. Despite intense damage control by Shyamalan and the studio, the movie bombed. We’re sure Hollywood has learned its lesson now and will never, ever do it again.
The Shawshank Redemption
To be fair, it’s not as if racebending is completely limited to whites playing originally non-white characters. Perhaps the most famous example of a black man playing a white character is the casting of Morgan Freeman as the Irishman “Red” in the movie version of Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” The script originally called for a white actor, and everyone from Harrison Ford to Paul Newman to Clint Eastwood was rumored to have read for the part. Then a senior executive at Castle Rock Entertainment recommended Freeman and the rest is history. While the movie did poorly at the box office, it is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, and Freeman earned an Academy Award Nomination for his performance. (In fact, Freeman was so good at playing Irishmen that he did it two more times; his characters in both Gone Baby Gone and Dreamcatcher were written as decedents of the Emerald Isle in the source material.) But before we shout equality from the rooftops, let’s remember why casting a black man worked for the studio and for white audiences: because the character of Red is a textbook example of the Magic Negro.
After the runaway success of Pulp Fiction everyone was wondering what Quentin Tarentino would do next. What he did was take a novel called Rum Punch, change the race of most of the characters and some of the plot, and turn it into a homage to Blaxploitation films. It was a risky move, considering studies show that white audiences tend to avoid movies with black actors.
While the film was critically acclaimed, the risk didn’t pay off. The film holds the distinction of being Tarentino’s second-lowest-grossing opening weekend, and unlike the lowest (Reservoir Dogs) it wasn’t a movie from a total unknown but by a hip young director coming off the hype surrounding Pulp Fiction. Since white audience historically don’t turn out in droves for movies with black leads, Tarentino was accused of making a “black” movie just so he could say he had. Spike Lee was especially upset with the 38 uses of the n-word in the movie, saying, “What does he want to be made — an honorary Black man?”
Recently hundreds of people took to twitter to express their anger at the character of Rue in The Hunger Games being portrayed by a black actress. When media outlets subsequently pointed out that the character was black in the book as well, those people apparently took their righteous indignation elsewhere. How else does one explain the sudden problem with Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury in The Avengers? Sure, Fury is white in the comic books, but Jackson first showed up as the character in Iron Man — way back in 2008.
A Beautiful Mind
Interracial marriage has been legal in the US for 45 years, but that doesn’t mean people are exactly comfortable with the idea yet. And in many countries abroad, countries that contribute a lot to a movie’s overall profits, interracial relationships are even more frowned upon. This has led to some casting decisions motivated by what the audience would accept rather than reality. The real John Nash was married to a Hispanic woman named Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé, but in A Beautiful Mind, his long suffering wife is called Alice and played by Jennifer Connelly.
Before The Last Airbender, the biggest racebending controversy of the decade was probably over Angelia Jolie playing the character of mixed-race French journalist Mariane Pearl, who was five months pregnant when her husband Daniel was abducted by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. While Jolie was personally attacked for accepting the role, for which she wore heavy makeup to darken her skin, the fault may have been Brad Pitt’s. His production company acquired the rights to the memoir the movie is based on while he was still married to Jennifer Aniston, and she was his original choice for the role. For what it is worth, Pearl went on record saying she was thrilled that Jolie was playing her. But then you would probably feel the same way if one of the most beautiful people in the world was portraying you on the big screen, regardless of race… or possibly even gender. Either way you end up looking sexy.
No one said no to John Wayne at the top of his game, not even Howard Hughes. That is why Wayne ended up completely miscast in the worst movie of his career, and one of the worst movies of all time according to various polls. When the script for this epic about Mongol leader Genghis Khan started making the rounds in Hollywood in the mid-1950s, everyone’s favorite cowboy thought he’d be perfect for the decidedly Asian titular role. Sadly, no one else agreed, but apparently didn’t think to say anything until after the picture was made. As the film’s producer, Hughes was so mortified by the results that he reportedly bought every print at a cost of $12 million just so no one could show it in theatres again.
The 1965 version of Shakespeare’s classic is proof Lawrence Olivier wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way of playing every single one of the Bard’s leads. And sure, it was a different time. However, there is really no excuse for Larry casting himself other than vanity. Blackface wasn’t acceptable even then, after all the Civil Rights movement was in full swing by ‘65. The sixties was also the first decade where black actors were regularly cast as complicated, interesting lead and supporting characters on TV and in films. Sydney Poitier was at the top of his game. And perhaps most importantly, while an argument could be made that white men had previously been playing the role for centuries, since the 1930s the character of Othello was synonymous with one of the greatest African-American stage actors of all time: Paul Robeson. Still, the white-washing paid off for Olivier and he was nominated for an Oscar.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
No list about racebending would be complete without this unfortunate stain on an otherwise classic movie. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is without parallel in most of cinema history. Calling it offensive does not suffice; we need to invent a new word. It is… OK, let’s say that a portrayal of your average Asian character is like a nice refreshing drink. Well, you know how sometimes you open a drink, maybe a beer or a soda, and you put it down and turn away for a minute and when you come back you grab a can thinking it is the one you just opened so you take a big swig but then it turns out it’s an old one from the night before that you hadn’t gotten around to recycling yet? And it is all warm and flat and full of backwash? And you get that feeling in your throat like you want to gag but you have to swallow the disgusting concoction first? That is what Rooney’s performance is like. Or, as Complex magazine said when they rated it Hollywood’s most racist movie ever, “in the history of inexplicable Hollywood racism, Breakfast at Tiffany’s takes the motherfuckin’ rice cake.”
Perhaps by wanting to avoid stereotyping Asian-Americans as really good at math, the producers of 21 just got rid of them all together. The movie, based on real-life MIT students who counted cards in Las Vegas, cast the almost exclusively Asian-American blackjack team with almost exclusively white actors. When media outlets started reporting outrage at the castings, producer Dana Brunetti said she would have “LOVED” to cast Asian actors as the leads, but that there weren’t enough bankable names. This, in turn, is because people like Brunetti won’t cast Asians as their film’s leads. And round and round we go.
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