Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?

In the new movie "Stuck," which opened last week, actress Mena Suvari plays a young woman named Brandi, who, after a night of partying, strikes a homeless man with her car, sending him through her windshield, and leaves him to die.

The plot is based on the real-life story of Texas woman Chante Mallard, who, at age 27, was convicted of murder and evidence tampering, and given 50-year and 10-year concurrent sentences after she hit Gregory Biggs and left him to die stuck in her windshield.

Mallard is African-American. Suvari, the blonde, blue-eyed beauty from "American Beauty" and the "American Pie" movies, is not. But she does wear cornrows to play the role of Brandi.

In the realm of Hollywood, where artistic license is the rule and studios need to recoup the millions of dollars they sink into films, it's not uncommon for white actors to be cast in ethnic roles or for real-life stories to be "whitewashed" to make them more mainstream.

"That movie Mena is in might not have gotten made if she wasn't in it," said David Vaccari, a New York-based casting director, who casts for films, television, commercials and theater. "It's all about getting the movie done. It's a business. Everyone is looking to make their money back. The artistic vision is in there, but I don't think it's always the primary factor. Sometimes, ethnicity and the reality of the story are sacrificed."

Bearing the brunt of that sacrifice are actors of color, who feel increasingly marginalized in Hollywood. "Hollywood is changing the paradigm of fundamental casting," television and film actress Victoria Rowell told "Unless African-American actors, Hispanic actors, Middle Eastern actors and Asian actors say no more, it's going to continue.

"Just because this true-life story is so abysmal does not mean we don't want to play the part," continued Rowell, who considers herself a multi-cultural woman of African descent. "If Denzel can play "American Gangster," then Tichina Arnold, Thandie Newton, Victoria Rowell, Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Audra McDonald would bring an authenticity to that role, if given the opportunity."

Nia Hill, a black producer working in Hollywood, says the casting of Suvari in "Stuck" is indicative not just of the current state of racism in Hollywood, but reaches back to the very beginnings of the industry. "Unfortunately, the idea that roles that were specifically created for women of color have consistently been offered to white actors, spans at least a century back."

"Stuck" is only the latest example. Last year, there was "A Mighty Heart," in which Angelina Jolie, a white actress, played writer Mariane Pearl, who is Afro-Cuban and Dutch and grew up in France. Pearl reportedly wanted Jolie to play her, because she trusted her. But the black blogosphere lit up when the first pictures of Jolie, in a corkscrew wig and tinted makeup, first appeared.

Caramel-colored actress Thandie Newton told Britain's The Sun, after seeing photos from the film set in 2006, "God, I'm shocked. She's been blacked up to play a black woman. I have to say it's surprising, very surprising." Newton told the reporter she would have loved to have played the role of Pearl, but would not judge Jolie's performance until she saw it.

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