Whitewashing and Hollywood just don’t add up

Rosa Price 12 May 2016

Hollywood clearly still has a whitewashing problem. While non-white characters may no longer be portrayed by white actors in black or yellowface makeup (which happened in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and as recently as 2013, in Cloud Atlas), they’re now being portrayed simply as white. The rationale for this is usually economic, which is at least honest, if mistaken. It’s hard to see how many notably whitewashed films released recently could have done notably worse at the box office.

Stonewall is only the most obvious flop, grossing $112,414 on its opening weekend from an estimated budget of $13,500,000. It explicitly came under attack for its whitewashing of the beginnings of the American gay rights movement (and thoroughly alienated what was presumably its target audience). Pan, which had Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, made back only $128,388,320 of a $150,000,000 budget despite starring Hugh Jackman – looks like that bankable white star wasn’t so bankable after all.

A revealing comparison is between Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. To cast the biblical story of Noah with Caucasians isn’t thought of as whitewashing in most people’s cultural consciousness (it may be supposed to take place in Palestine, but representations of Jesus from the medieval to Claude Heater’s faceless Christ in Ben-Hur mean the Bible is pretty much white in the western consciousness). To cast no Arabs in a film explicitly set in Egypt is a little harder to pull off, and director Ridley Scott duly received criticism. Noah grossed $362,637,473 from a budget of $125,000,000, while Exodus grossed only $268,175,631 from a larger budget of $140,000,000. Exodus wasn’t a commercial flop (critical is another matter) but it’s pretty suggestive: audiences dislike whitewashing if they know it’s there.

But then, is it surprising that an industry which is almost entirely white behind the scenes is going to cast mainly white actors? If the director, writers, casting director and producers of a film are white, they’ll probably be trying to cater to a white audience (besides, the thinking is that white people won’t watch films starring non-white people, but the reverse doesn’t apply).  In some ways, this invisible whiteness behind the screen is worse than obvious whitewashing which can at least be criticised and boycotted. If all the people choosing which films get made and how they get made are white, there’ll be little meaningful change.

The money made by films like Selma, which grossed $66,787,908 from a $20,000,000 budget,  and Dear White Peoplewhich made $4,404,154 from a tiny $41,000 crowd funded budget – shows there clearly is a market for films which are not made wholly by, for and about white people. Selma was directed by a black woman, Ava DuVernay, had a black man, Bradford Young, as its cinematographer, and a black woman, Aisha Coley, as a casting director; Dear White People was written and directed by Justin Simien, a black man. Neither of these films were Hollywood blockbusters (just compare budgets with the films listed above), but perhaps that’s revealing. Hollywood’s whitewashing is part of its production of bloated, unimaginative blockbusters: involving non-white people in creating films may help to revitalise an industry which is churning out film after boring, repetitive, stale film.