Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?

"Every black actress looked up and saw 'A Mighty Heart' and said, 'Why wasn't I asked to audition for that role,'" Rowell said. "I'm not here to chastise Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for bringing the story to the big screen, but why not put a black actress in that role?"

Michael Rechtshaffen, a film critic and feature writer for The Hollywood Reporter, believes the reason is financial. "It's a difficult subject matter. It's going to be a challenge to get people in the theater, so you want to put your best foot forward," he said.

Yet, despite its bankable star, "A Mighty Heart" still tanked at the box office. Had the studio gone with a more obscure French actress, Rechtshaffen said, "it would have had no shot at all."

Similarly, Vaccari believes the film "21," which came out this spring, would have had little chance of being made if it had stayed true to the story it was based on from the book, "Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to their Knees," by Ben Mezrich.

The real whiz kid and his partners in crime are Asian American. The filmmakers made them white, with the exception of one Asian, and cast Jim Sturgess, a Brit, as the leader.

"They probably said, 'this movie has a better chance of being mainstream if the lead is not Asian,'" Vaccari said. "It's a question of 'we can make this movie with four unknowns or we can try to take a little license with the script. No one is saying it's real. They're saying it's based on a true story.'"

Rechtshaffen has heard similar arguments. "A film is not a documentary," he said. "It's an artistic vision. How loyal do you have to be to source material?"

Still, he believes if the film is based in fact, producers should "always try first to go for the real deal and really make an effort to find an actor who is most representative of the actual person."

Rechtshaffen wonders if the producers of "Stuck" actually decided against casting a black woman and changed a lot of the facts of the case because they didn't want it to be offensive to blacks.

Independent films, on the other hand, can cast non-white relative unknowns and audiences will accept it, Vaccari said, because they are expecting to see an authentic story about a particular place or person. Some independent films do well and even make a decent profit, but they are still an anomaly at the theater.

"At the multiplex, you'll have seven screens playing "Iron Man," seven playing "Indiana Jones," and one playing "The Visitor," he said.

Vaccari believes the real issue is not what color or ethnicity actors are, but how bankable are they. "It's hard for all actors, everyone wants more parts," he said. "At the top, there's a level of actor who can do whatever they want. If Will Smith wanted to do that part in '21,' he probably could have done it. Will Smith can play a white guy. That's the reality of the business."

But there's only one Will Smith and one Halle Berry. Even one of the most acclaimed black actresses, Angela Bassett, is turning to television for work; she'll be a regular on the final season of "ER." Rowell, who starred opposite Dick Van Dyke in the television series "Diagnosis Murder," Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels in the film "Dumb and Dumber," and Samuel L. Jackson in "Home of the Brave," has turned to writing books. Her memoir, "The Women Who Raised Me," was on the New York Time's bestseller list.

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