Hollywood has an infamous history of white-washing. For the uninitiated, that means white people playing coloured people’s characters. This problematic behaviour is rooted in the underlying belief that people of different ethnicities aren’t good enough or popular enough to play leading roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows, which is a bunch of nonsense.
Even if a person of colour makes it to a popular franchise like John Boyega playing Stormtrooper Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015, wackos come out of the woodwork to ‘explain’ how people of colour don’t fit the storyline or era or the cinematic universe of a film. This is just one of the baseless ‘theories’ bigots use to hide their beliefs of white supremacy and racism under the veils of intellectuality.
Let’s look at Indian characters. Hollywood movies have cast white actors to play Indian roles with ridiculous accents and their faces painted brown since the 1930s. Tyrone Power as an Indian doctor in The Rains Came (1939), Alec Guinness as the Indian Professor Godbole in A Passage To India (1984), Fisher Stevens as an Indian scientist in Short Circuit (1986) and Max Minghella as Facebook co-founder Divya Narendra in The Social Network (2010) are just some examples. The filmmakers probably justify this with the ludicrous theory I mentioned before.
On receiving backlash for Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Ridley Scott went so far as to say to Variety, “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. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Sure, Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are big names, but Scott’s apathetic tone only proves how dismissive Hollywood generally is of other races and ethnicities.
You must have come across the online debates about Ariel being Black. People took the liberty of using ‘science’ to explain why Ariel can only be white ignoring the fact that it’s literally a fictional singing mermaid they’re talking about. A desi version of the same debate has returned with the announcement of Mindy Kaling’s adult animated series, ‘Velma’. The witty nerd from our beloved show Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is Indian in this spinoff. And people are mad again. At Warner Bros. and the showrunners specifically.
Mindy recently addressed the character’s ethnicity saying, “Nobody ever complained about a talking dog solving mysteries, So I don’t think they’ll be upset over a brown Velma.” And when they did, tweeting, “so, not Velma?” insinuating that if she’s brown she cannot be that character at all, Mindy rebutted with, “She’s such a great character, she’s so smart and I just couldn’t understand how people couldn’t imagine a really smart, nerdy girl with terrible eyesight who loved to solve mysteries could not be Indian. There are Indian nerds.” She brushed off the haters rather gracefully and with humour.
The opposition that rises every time we see a minority group get some representation on the big or small screen is abhorrent. It’s as if claiming our skin colour, our traditions and our ethnicities is allowed as long as the status quo remains unchallenged. Cultural appropriation has become insidious now. There are no brown faces and mocking accents, (at least not in the mainstream media) but Hollywood’s malpractice of stealing narratives from other cultures and using white actors to share them with the world still exists.
Even ‘inclusivity’ feels forceful and performative. South Asian characters were either a side or supporting roles or portrayed as awkward comic reliefs in American TV shows like Raj from The Big Bang Theory or Fez from that 70s show. The only shows that had leading roles for South Asian actors were ones they created themselves like The Big Sick, The Mindy Project, Master of None, and Meet the Patels. Even then, you can always see these characters exhibiting apologetic behaviour for being Brown. And don’t even get me started on the problematic, token, dismissive representation of Brown women specifically. We do not have enough time.
It’s tragic to see artists and creators having to defend and hesitating to take pride in their ethnicities in 2022. We criticize cancel culture for calling out bigots and holding them accountable. It’s perceived as a ‘threatening’ act of radical social justice. But if it was so radical, we would have seen some real, practical change in society, wouldn’t we? The harder we try to reach a respectful, equalitarian culture, the further it seems to slip away.
Along with the cinema, our brains have been whitewashed too. And yes, truthful representation or the lack thereof is at fault but we need to do better as well and educate ourselves; wash the prejudiced glasses we see the world through, call out appropriation/ misrepresentation when we see it and check our own internalized shame about our roots and culture. It’s far richer and more profound than its mainstream western portrayal.