Hey, Hollywood! Race Does Matter

When I learned that Disney was remaking the “The Lone Ranger,” I thought: Wow, Hollywood really has run out of ideas; they just keep making the same movies over and over. Then, when I found out that Johnny Depp was playing the Native American character Tonto, I realized Hollywood also keeps making the same mistakes over and over, casting white actors in roles for people of color.

Johnny Depp’s casting follows a grand old “tradition” of having (often well-known) white actors portray characters who are Native American, African-American, Hispanic and Asian American. This “tradition” started, of course, with the choice of Swedish actor Warner Oland to play the detective Charlie Chan in a series of 1930s movies. The very first Charlie Chan movies actually had Asian actors (Japanese actor George Kuwa, Korean actor E.L. Park) in the title role. Both films minimized Chan’s role (to only ten minutes in one case) and were not commercial successes. It was after Oland was hired to play Chan in (as one film writer puts it) a self-effacing and subservient manner that the films started to do well at the box office.

It is not that there weren’t any Native American, African-American, Hispanic and Asian American actors “back then” to act in movies. Hollywood, an eye ever on the bottom line, was just not interested in hiring them, and audiences apparently were not interested in seeing them, preferring to see stereotypical, racist portrayals by white actors in a lot of make-up.

But what is really troubling is that, after the Civil Rights Era and at a time when the President of the United States is African-American, Hollywood is repeating its own troubled history by making movies starring white actors as Native Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities. Here are some egregious examples, some quite recent:

1. Russian-born Yul Brynner played the King of Siam (that is, Thailand) in the 1956 The King & I.

2. The 1956 film The Teahouse of the August Moon featured Marlon Brando in prosthetic eyepieces and make-up as a “wily interpreter.”

3. Audrey Hepburn played the adopted Native American daughter of a frontier family in the 1960 movie, The Unforgiven. (Yes, the very Belgian-born actress who played a European princess in the 1953 Roman Holiday and a New York call girl from Texas in the 1961 Breakfast At Tiffany’s whose cast included a grotesque performance by Mickey Rooney in yellow face  as I.Y. Yunioshi.)

4. The 1961 film West Side Story featured Natalie Wood (whose parents were Russian immigrants) as the sister of Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo (who was played by George Chakiris, whose parents were Greek immigrants).

5. A 1981 remake of the Charlie Chan movies (don’t ask me why anyone thought we needed such a thing), Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, featured Peter Ustinov in the title role.

6. William Hurt won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of a gay Brazilian prisoner in the 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was based on a novel by Argentine writer Manuel Puig.

7. Winona Ryder was one of the stars of the 1993 movie House of Spirits, which was adapted from a novel of the same name by Isabel Allende and set in Chile. Except for Antonio Banderas, the film’s main actors (Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close) were all white.

8. The new Lone Ranger movie is not the first time that Depp has played a Native American character. In the 1997 The Brave, Depp cast himself as the lead role as Raphael, an impoverished Native American who agrees to star in a snuff film to earn a large sum of money for his family.

9. The 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, which was based on the life of Nobel Laureate in Economics John Nash, contained a serious factual error. Nash’s wife Alicia, who was from El Savador, was played not by a Latina actress, but by Jennifer Connelly.

10. In the 2009 film Killshot, Mickey Rourke (who’s of Irish and French descent by way of upstate New York and Florida) plays a Native American character.

Hollywood keeps claiming that, hey, it’s “just the movies.” People who go to the cinema (or, rather, sign up for Netflix) just want a little entertainment and don’t want to be, and shouldn’t be, bothered by irksome questions about race and color-blind casting.

But the truth is that it matters more than ever that the characters of color in movies are played by people of color. More than half of the children now born in the U.S. are from racial and ethnic minorities, according to U.S. Census data. Two out of three students in Texas public schools are now Hispanic. The U.S. of the future is going to look like my classroom at a small university in Jersey City, where only 25 percent of the student population is white.

In a U.S. in which “minorities” are becoming — are, in many places — the majority, for Hollywood to keep making movies starring white actors in roles for people of color is a sign of how very, very, very far removed it is from reality. But what can you expect from an industry that’s all about fantasy and profits?

Photo via Jorge Figueroa/Flickr


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Lika S.
Lika P5 years ago

Since race matters, and Johnny Depp resembles his "white" side, does this mean that it was wrong for Will Smith to play the role of Jim West in the movie "Wild, Wild West"? Jim West was white. But, I thought that Will Smith did a great job in that role. So does it matter that he is black?

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Kristina Chew needs to do a bit of research before writing this rubbish. Johnny Depp is HALF Native American! He did the movie as a way of showing the "other side" of the Lone Ranger legend........that of the viewpoint from Tonto's perspective. He did a lot of research with the Cherokee and consulted with many of other tribes in that area.

Meryl Streep Is not British, but she did a pretty good job of portraying Margaret Thatcher!

BTW, the movie is meant to be a SPOOF. I saw it and thought it was great. Laughed my ARSE off during the entire thing and will buy it on DVD.

Rebeca C.
Rebeca c5 years ago

JONHNY DEPP: English, Irish, Northern Irish (Scots-Irish), Scottish, Welsh, French, Dutch, Belgian (Flemish), German, 3/2048 African, 1/2048 Powhatan Native American

Rebeca C.
Rebeca c5 years ago

!!! Johnny Depp is NOT a white actor ...duh
and it seems you have left off your list that woman who dared to play Peter Pan taking away the job from a real boy...

Susan B.
Susan B5 years ago

When movies do this it's to use big names to attract a big audience. Please. Money, money, money.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago


Linda McKellar
Past Member 5 years ago

Sex also matters. Very few good roles are designed for women especially once they reach their "best before" date and their hot looks. Grubby old men still get to play studs. Yeah, right. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis, to name but a few, are such turn ons.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran5 years ago

Hmm. actors are there to entertain. and having people of different ethnicities playing other ethnicities sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. it all depends on the role and the representation.

in the movie "short circuit" Fisher Stevens, plays an Indian, and it was terrible!

Dennis D.
Past Member 5 years ago

Candy R. Wrote:

I'm making a film about early American History, I am casting Denzel Washington as George Washington, Lou Diamond Phillips as Thomas Jefferson and Morgan Freeman as Benjamin Franklin...Oh and Meryl Streep will play Jefferson's slave mistress!

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/10-movies-showing-hollywood-still-thinks-race-doesnt-matter.html#ixzz2YVaibBfB

With that cast they could probably pull it off. just saying..

Though if you really wanted to hit gold.. I would suggest Morgan Freeman as Samuel Adams and cast Forest Whitaker as Benjamin Franklin.. As Morgan Freeman would be able to bring depth to Samuel Adams and Forest Whitaker is a lot more the character actor. Just as an observation.

And yes I am as white as can be.. I see nothing wrong in this idea and would find it interesting to see it brought to the stage. If not in front of the cameras.