Equality and diversity gone wrong: whitewashing in the movies

Equality and diversity gone wrong: whitewashing in the movies

Posted on Oct 21, 2016

Equality and diversity gone wrong: whitewashing in the movies



Earlier this year at the Oscars, you may remember the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite going around, highlighting the fact that there was an absence in people of colour nominated.

This is the second year in a row that the Oscars have been criticised for having very little diversity. But is it just a lack of awards being given out to non-white actors that’s the problem, or something more?


No lead roles played by people of colour

Unfortunately, not only are there very few films being made where the lead role is played by someone of colour, but when one is, it is claimed that characters are being whitewashed


What is whitewashing?

Whitewashing is when movie roles are given to white actors – despite what the role called for.

For example:


maria- west side story

West Side Story (1961)

An iconic film which follows two rival street gangs from different ethnic backgrounds in New York City, which ironically used white-American actress Natalie Wood to play the Puerto Rican female lead Maria.



Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra is another iconic film where a white actress (in this case Elizabeth Taylor) is playing the lead role of Egyptian queen Cleopatra.


Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

The romantic Breakfast at Tiffany’s cast Mickey Rooney, a white-American actor, to portray a Japanese character. (The character itself stereotypes people of an Asian descent so much that it would still have been offensive should the character have been played by an actual Japanese actor. But of course – it wasn’t.)


Now, although it shouldn’t have been this way, casting white actors as characters from different backgrounds in the 1960s was the norm. Some say this happened due to the lack of minority-ethnic in Hollywood at the time. But what about today? Is it acceptable that lead roles are falling into the laps of white actors regardless of the character being played?


White-washing is still a problem!

Since 2000, there have been a number of blockbuster films where lead roles are being played by white actors regardless of the characters ethnicity.

For example:



Noah (2014)

Noah, an ancient story of a man and his ark is, like most stories from the Bible, filled with characters who are most likely Middle Eastern. Yet, cast as Noah himself is New Zealand-born Russell Crowe. But it didn't stop there, Noah’s family are played by Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson. None of whom are from the Middle East.


Drive (2011)

Again, another favourite cult film. This time about a Hollywood stuntman played by heartthrob Ryan Gosling. In the film, Gosling’s character tries to help his neighbour Irene, who is played by Carey Mulligan, a white-British actress. However, in the James Sallis book ‘Drive’ (which the film is based on), Mulligan’s character Irene is a young Latina woman.


Some argue that whitewashing in films is simply down to picking the right actor for the job. Drive’s director Nicolas Winding Refn discussed picking Carey Mulligan because “she walked through the door, I was like, ‘You’re it.’” and because he 'couldn’t fall in love' with any of the Latina actresses he had met so far. 

But does that mean it’s OK? Well most movie-watchers would probably say no!

In fact, just last month a fake Twitter account named ‘Un-reel News’ released a statement saying that Disney were reportedly eying up Jennifer Lawrence for a live-action remake of the film Mulan. A story based on a female warrior legend from the Dynasties of China, a country where Jennifer Lawrence is most definitely not from. Not only did this rumour spread fast causing uproar on social media, but it also sparked the start a petition which has now reached over 90,000 signatures to prevent this from happening. 


Have you seen any of the films mentioned in this blog?

It's quite possible that you didn’t notice the fact that some characters had been whitewashed in the above movies. Just like it's quite possible you didn't notice discrimination in the workplace.

It can be easy for unconscious bias and discrimination to happen, but that does not mean it's acceptable. So, to avoid this from happening, organisations must train staff to be aware of it. 'But how do they do that?' we hear you ask. Equality and diversity training, of course!

Find out more about what's included in equality and diversity training here.



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