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.
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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?