White Washing in the Film Industry

by Katherine Ramsey
February 18th, 2021

Since the early 1900s, whitewashing in films has been a prevalent problem. According to the author of “Whitewashing in the U.S. Film Industry,” Claire Starling, “whitewashing occurs when film producers actively seek and cast white actors for roles that were originally meant for people of color, whether it is that the character is described as a certain race or their ethnicity is clearly defined within the story.” Despite vocal outrage, the film industry continues to regularly cast white actors for the roles of BIPOC characters. Members of the film industry have attempted to defend whitewashed casting, claiming that films with BIPOC actors do not do well in the box office, however, reports have found that “more diverse casted films actually perform financially better than predominantly White casted films.”

Continual whitewashed casting creates a system “that prefers and praises white actors over other races and in response, creates harmful effects on audience members of color through the lack of minority representation.” While whitewashing is not limited to films, it is, arguably, one of the most influential areas for society’s understanding of BIPOC. Additionally, whitewashing causes minority cultures to be removed from the story, even if the film is adapted from the lives of BIPOC figures. For example, Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban Frenchwoman, in the film A Mighty Heart. Additional examples of whitewashing include Emma Stone in Aloha, casted to play a half-Chinese and half-native Hawaiian woman, and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, described as “infamously outrageous” as he plays a highly offensive portrayal of an Asian man.

Some films have been more openly criticized for whitewashed casts, including the film adaptations of Deathnote and The Last Airbender. The Last Airbender was especially criticized for its predominantly white cast. Despite high hopes for the film adaptation of the beloved cartoon TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, “fans of the original TV series say whatever hopes they had for the live-action movie [had] been dashed by...the selection of white actors to fill the main hero roles instead of the people of color fans say the source material requires.” Despite Paramount’s attempt to defend the film, stating that “half of the credited speaking roles were filled by people of color,” most of the movie’s critics were not impressed, stating that the only diversity in the film is found in secondary characters and background extras.

Although these instances of open criticism exist and denounce the prevalence of whitewashing in the film industry, there is little change that has occurred. Claire Starling states that, although awareness about the issue is key to creating change, this awareness is counterproductive if fans still pay money to watch whitewashed films. She offers one potential remedy to this problem - to set hiring targets for people of color, both in visible and behind-the-scenes positions, ensuring that adequate research and knowledge is attained to avoid stereotypes and that actors of the portrayed race or ethnicity are the people casted to play that race or ethnicity.

Ignoring the problem of whitewashing, or even acknowledging it but never acting to change it, only enables the film industry to perpetuate these harmful practices. Now more than ever, media portrayal is vital to society’s interactions with BIPOC and minority groups. So, the next time you are excited about an upcoming film, ask yourself if the cast matches the intended characters and, if it doesn’t, maybe don’t watch the film.


https://www.uis.edu/caphonors/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2020/04/Whitewashing-in-the-U.pdf https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/20-worst-examples-of-whitewashing-in-movie-history/ https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/last-airbender-movie-blasted-for-whitewashing-1.918316 https://comicbook.com/anime/news/netflix-death-note-anime-controversy/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitewashing_in_film https://www.zimbio.com/Modern+Hollywood+Whitewashing/articles/QCBx2bsB_rD/The+Last+Airbender https://www.famefocus.com/entertainment/hollywood-whitewashing-16-times-white-actors-played-minority-characters/9/