Mel Gibson aside, filmmakers like to see themselves as a particularly progressive sort, full of tolerance for other people and other cultures. We live in tolerant times far removed from the rampant segregation and prejudice which characterised earlier eras, but that doesn’t necessarily mean racism has been banished completely. Now obviously, anti-racist attitudes are prevalent in the film industry – as they should be – but these attitudes don’t always translate well into the films themselves. Hollywood has often been racist, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and this spectre has re-raised its ugly head recently with Johnny Depp’s controversial turn as a Native American in The Lone Ranger.
The problem is that it can be very easy to stumble into the racism trap – in Depp’s case, it’s the demand to shoehorn in a star name at the cost of racial sensitivity. In other cases it can be caused by racial insensitivity, shocking ignorance and occasionally, the fact that a film just won’t sell with a ‘foreigner’ at the helm. Especially in Hollywood’s case it can be hard to sell a film without some sort of American presence, leading to other cultures being homogenised until they’re rendered palatable to the target audience. In laymans terms, this often results in the whiting up of ethnic characters. A grand slew of films have fallen foul of one or more of these rules over the years, and I intend to identify a few in this list.
And no, I’m not referencing Birth Of A Nation. It’s just far, far too easy.
7. Mickey Rooney – Breakfast At Tiffany’s
It’s actually a really odd one, this. Here we have a film renowned for featuring classy actors – including a smouldering Audrey Hepburn – engaging in charming romantic comedy fare. Everything’s full of charm and classiness, but then we have Mickey Rooney playing Holly Golightly’s Asian neighbour, I.Y Yunioshi in the very definition of sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s weird because there’s no real need for him to be in the film at all – he’s literally a big, racist appendix. Yet he remains there, and has has caused headaches ever since.
I’m not going overboard when I say this gave Breakfast At Tiffany’s a massive downer which it’s found it hard to shake. Rooney’s portrayal of an Asian man appeared to channel every negative stereotype under the sun, and he added buck-toothed and stupidity for good measure. It was just bizarre, and always results in a massive editing job when the film is shown in public, especially in multi-cultural events.
Plus, this role apparently made Bruce Lee very upset when he watched the film. If you manage to upset a man who murdered about twenty men before breakfast, you know you might have gone too far.
3. The Cast – 21
One of the most amazingly racist ‘based on a true story’ cases ever committed to celluloid, 21 concerned itself with a troupe of blackjack-playing students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taken from bestseller Bringing Down The House, they’re all predictably brilliant, and they use their smarts to develop a card-counting system which allows them to take on Vegas casinos and win handily.
It’s a cool premise for a film, never mind a real-life story, and the film is exquisitely shot, allowing us to join in the kinetic thrill of these youngsters and their lecturer ring-leader (played by an on-autopilot but nonetheless entertaining Kevin Spacey). The only major problem is that in the real story every one of them – from lecturer all the way down to students – were nearly all of Asian-American descent. However, the film eschews this, instead whitewashing the cast with the exception of two Asian-American sidekicks, who are seen as the joker and the loser respectively.
21’s producer went on record saying that they would have loved to cast Asian-Americans in all the parts, but unfortunately there were just no bankable names out there, and that’s a bit of a shame. Of course, this doesn’t detract away from the actual cast – who pull off their roles pretty darn well, actually – but it leaves something of a cloud over proceedings, knowing we couldn’t have the actual story because the filmmakers didn’t believe it would sell with Asian-Americans taking all the major parts.
2. Tom Cruise – The Last Samurai
There’s an awkwardly racist trope that exists in Hollywood films, and it goes something like this. Usually, to make a film marketable you put a superstar name in the title – so far, so good. Most of these names – Will Smith notwithstanding – are white, which makes for its own problem. Yet when the film requires the main character to explore a foreign culture, a whole other can of worms is opened up. Because apparently, by Hollywood logic, all white people need to comprehensively trump everybody from a culture at their own game is a couple of months and a redemptive arc.
Case in point, The Last Samurai. I actually really liked this film, but in my eyes, it’s just a little discomforting if you read into it. We’re introduced to Tom Cruise’s character – who time is not called Jack and arrogant beyond belief – a traumatised hero of the Indian Wars who’s a massively unstable raging alcoholic. Said character finds solace in the teachings of the samurai, taking up with the wife of the man he dishonourably killed while fighting them. Apparently, this wreck of a man can take up the samurai code and trump most – if not all – practitioners within a matter of months, even if they’ve been practicing their entire lives.
The fact that most of his training revolves around him being beaten with kendo sticks makes this all the more insane, and racist to boot. It’s not that this is a racist film – the undertones of modern Japan vs. traditional Japan are very well explored and Ken Watanabe’s Katsumoto is extremely intriguing. It’s just that the role of Nathan Algeren is so strangely racist, with his very existence implying that a novice white guy able to trump hardened samurai pretty darn quickly. Whoever you cast in the part, they’re going to suffer as a result. That’s a shame, because Cruise actually does well with what he’s been given here.
1. The Cast – Memoirs Of A Geisha
It’s a common Hollywood trick to cast people of differing nationalities but from the same geographical area for specific roles. For example, Kingdom of Heaven had an ethnic Syrian take the role of the Persian-born ruler Saladin. Taken in moderation, this can be acceptable – films tend to be marketed toward American/European audiences so some liberties are always taken safe in the knowledge that there won’t be any outrage. Yet there are times when it clearly isn’t right because the backlash would be enormous, and Memoirs Of A Geisha represents one of these times.
In summary, Memoirs Of A Geisha concerns the plight of a girl who is sold into a Geisha house and rises to the top of that world. The Geisha is one of the biggest icons in Japanese history and occupies a special place in its culture, so naturally, ears would be pricked at the first sign of controversy here. Unfortunately, Memoirs Of A Geisha ran headlong into the controversy by casting many of the principal roles with Chinese or ethnic Chinese actresses such as Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh.
Effectively, you couldn’t stick two fingers up to Japanese culture any more without sticking Mickey Rooney in one of the parts. The backlash in Japan was predictably quite large and the film probably didn’t do as well as it could’ve done if it had cast Japanese actresses. What makes it more mystifying is that it’s not as if there’s a particular dearth of them – Japan’s film industry is large and booming, so it just seems like a shocking oversight on the casting agency’s part.
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