Well, that didn’t take long.
Just days after an Academy Awards ceremony that took Hollywood to task for not being more ethnically inclusive comes evidence that the movie industry’s structural racism is as intractable as ever.
First, the first poster for the Nina Simone biopic “Nina” appeared, followed by an online trailer. The film, which stars Zoe Saldana, was promptly shredded for casting a light-skinned actress to play the far darker Simone. As words like “minstrelsy” and “blackface” flew, Simone’s estate tweeted to the actress, “please take Nina’s name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
The sense of betrayal was palpable, as Simone’s identity — as a woman who fought not only racism but also colorism within the African American community — seemed to be rendered invisible by yet another lighter-is-better narrative. It’s an erasure firmly rooted in a film culture that, from its inception, has made a practice of denigrating and distorting black bodies, while elevating whiteness as its falsely “universal” standard.
No sooner had the “Nina” controversy erupted than the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” screened for critics and preview audiences. The film, starring Tina Fey as an intrepid, amusingly clumsy television reporter assigned to cover the war in Afghanistan, takes full advantage of its lead actress’s unforced warmth, in the service of a film that balances drama, romance and comedy with admirable skill. But in the midst of what could have been a thoroughly delightful mid-winter diversion, viewers are presented with the off-putting spectacle of two white actors — Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina — portraying key Afghan figures in the story, one wearing layers of bronzing powder and a native pakol, the other leering from behind a bushy beard.
Or, to quote John Oliver on the subject of Hollywood and whitewashing: How is this still a thing?
Between “Nina,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and the recently released “Gods of Egypt” — which has also come under fire for casting white actors, this time as North African characters — it looks like Hollywood remains stuck in a toxic, tautological rut, wherein studios won’t greenlight a movie without internationally successful stars, who are almost always white. (Saldana, it bears noting, is of mixed ethnic heritage.) That was surely how Emma Stone came to play a part-Chinese, part-native Hawaiian character in Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” a disastrous misstep for which Crowe later apologized. And that’s the excuse director Ridley Scott gave when observers called him out on casting Christian Bale as Moses in his biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which co-starred Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Ben Kingsley.
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott told Variety before the movie opened in 2014. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Scott’s story is a familiar one in Hollywood, where lists circulate with stars’ names in one column and their box-office values in another. (It’s a list actors should never see, lest they curl into a fetal position and never come out.) But increasingly, the logic of white-centric financing and casting is beginning to falter. Witness last weekend’s dismal performance of “Gods of Egypt,” a swords-and-sandals adventure that sank like a stone despite its market-sanctioned, mostly white cast.
Scott’s “Exodus,” meanwhile, did okay-not-great business, a fact rarely mentioned when studio executives resort to the same, tired arguments about bankability and box office. What skittish investors may once have seen as a surefire way to woo audiences is now being revealed as the chauvinistic magical thinking that it always was. Far from attracting recalcitrant viewers, the prospect of white (or, in Saldana’s case, light) actors playing culturally specific characters is far more likely to drive them away.
In part, this is the product of a raised public consciousness, thanks to media campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite. But more fundamentally, it’s a function of the changing expectations of an audience that’s more culturally literate than ever, and more hungry for images that resonate with the vibrant, multicultural world they live in. The magic of cinema has always derived from its combination of uncanny realism and the immersive emotional power of a great performance: Nothing breaks that spell faster than a miscast actor struggling through a role she’s all wrong for.
Rather than getting lost in the story up on the screen, viewers find themselves distracted by a bad makeup job or too-obvious prosthetics. Rather than becoming wrapped up in the emotional truth a performer is trying to convey, they remain at arm’s length from a character that can never be fully, seamlessly realized. Fakery can never take the place of an actor disappearing into a role, and the audience can increasingly be counted on to tell the difference.
Whitewashing is a deeply political issue, rooted in what stories get to be told in the dominant narrative medium of our age, and who gets to tell them. But as filmgoers become more sophisticated, it’s also a matter of aesthetics, coming down to what we will or will not accept when we’re asked to enter fully an imagined world onscreen. For a performance to ring true, everything has to be in tune — and that begins with choosing the right instrument.