This week, the cast of the new Fantastic Four reboot was finally announced. The actors portraying the famed tetrad are Kate Mara as Susan Storm, Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm and — controversially — Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm. The problem, at least according to some, is that Jordan is a black actor, and Johnny Storm is a white character.
Image Credit: Marvel
Incensed fans claim that their dissatisfaction with this casting choice is motivated by a desire to keep the movies true to the source material. But much digital ink has been spilled on the multitude of reasons why the protests are absolutely ridiculous and likely motivated by ignorance, if not outright racism, rather than purism.
The fact of the matter is that black people have been booted out of roles that were originally black for ages. From Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra to John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, Hollywood has a sordid history of whitewashing. It hasn't gotten better in the last 20 years, and there is very little outcry from those wanting to preserve "source material" when the person being outed is a person of color.
Before digging into these 10 famously whitewashed roles, it's important to point out that this in and of itself doesn't make the casting of a black actor in a white role okay. Am I arguing one gigantic fallacy? No. The point here is that the erasure of people of color from cinema has been so widespread, even in recent years, from roles that are originally supposed to be be played by them, that it has done damage to those groups.
It's time to start rebuilding after that damage. Adding a person of color in a role that was originally written as white is not harmful when doing so doesn't make a difference to the character's arc, and it can also make a big difference in the portrayal of people of color in the media.
To that I say, "Flame on."
Winning four of the seven Oscars it was nominated for, 2001's A Beautiful Mind retells the real-life story of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who struggles with mental illness. The film's leading lady (played by Jennifer Connelly) is called simply Alicia (and then later Alicia Nash), but the woman on whom she is based was born Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé. She was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, though you wouldn't know her Latin heritage from looking at Connelly in the film.
2011's Drive is based on a novel of the same name by James Sallis. In the novel, Irene is a young Latina woman who the main character (Ryan Gosling in the film) assists. However, director Nicolas Winding "couldn't find an actress that clicked with [him] personally" and the character was re-written as a white woman instead.
Many have noted the various racist stereotypes played by all iterations of The Lone Ranger, but casting Johnny Depp, a white man, to play Tonto, a Native American, in last year's remake adds insult to injury.
Like many fans of the animated series, I try to pretend that the Avatar, the Last Airbender movie never happened. Alas, it did happen, and it is probably one of the most egregious examples of whitewashing in recent memory. Aang, Katara and Sokka — all main protagonists in the first season (upon which the movie is based) — are all played by white actors, despite their obvious racial diversity in the original series. Zuko is the only person in the main cast played by a person of color — and he's the villain.
In 2008, Columbia Studios turned the book Bringing Down the House, based on the experiences of real MIT students, into the movie 21. In the film, as in the book, those students counted cards in Blackjack to win epic sums of money.
The real-life men behind the story — Jeffrey Ma, Mike Aponte and their teacher John Chang — are all of Asian descent. And they are all changed to caucasian people (Jim Sturgess, Jacob Pitts and Kevin Spacey, respectively) in the movie.
Jennifer Lawrence fans, take a deep breath. Katniss Everdeen is widely regarded by many to be a woman of color in the books on which the film is based; she is described by author Suzanne Collins as having straight black hair, olive skin and grey eyes. This certainly does not sound like the naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed Lawrence, even after they dyed her hair and tanned her skin a bit for the second film. To make matters worse, casting directors wouldn't even consider a girl of color.
It's also worth remembering the outcry the first film launched over the casting of a young African-American actress as Rue, despite that she is described in the book as having "dark brown skin and eyes."
The 2007 thriller 30 Days of Night is based on a three-issue comic book series of the same name. However, the name that the producers of the film didn't keep was the name of the protagonist. In the comic books, the main character is Sheriff Eben Olemaun, who is said to be of Inuit descent. Olemaun gets advanced strength in the comic books by injecting vampire blood into his veins. Apparently that made him white as well, as he his portrayed by Josh Hartnett in the film and his name is changed to Eben Oleson.
Perhaps Kevin Spacey's acting specialty is to play people of color, because this is the second time he's on this list. In 2000's Pay it Forward, Spacey plays a character named Eugene Simonet, the teacher who inspires main character Trevor McKinney to change the world. The problem? In the book on which the movie is based, Simonet's name is actually Reuben St.Clair, and he's a black man. The part was apparently offered to Denzel Washington, and, seemingly unable to find any other black men in Hollywood, directors gave the role to Spacey instead.
Argo joins our list as another film based on a real-life person whose body was represented by a white person in film — in this case by director Ben Affleck, who cast himself. Completed in 2012, Argo tells the story of now-retired CIA tech officer Tony Mendez. Mendez, who reportedly blessed the casting, is a man of mixed heritage, but Affleck chose not to recognize that heritage in the film.
Khan Noonien Singh is, in Star Trek lore, considered to be the best of a crop of genetically engineered humans. He is the Enterprise's most ruthless and cunning enemy and is the complex, multi-faceted villain in Wrath of Khan. He is also originally played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban and was described as Northern Indian Sikh.
But in 2013's Into Darkness, Khan was cast as the very talented, but very pasty, Benedict Cumberbatch. In casting Cumberbatch, Into Darkness loses much of the depth and progressiveness that was a part of casting Montalban in the first place. It merely becomes the latest in the line of movies that casts white men as sympathetic villains, and men of color as two-dimensional monsters to be slayed.