Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?

In films based on fact, white actors are taking parts meant for other races.


June 4, 2008 — -- 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.

"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.

But when it came time to record the audio portion of her book, the veteran actress had to fight to read it herself. The publisher, she said, wanted a European woman's voice. It was a snub she never saw coming, especially since it was her own story.

"We're in a dangerous place with all of this," she said, "Hollywood is saying we don't need you. We don't need your face. Your skin color. Your history. We don't even need your voice."

She says actors of color have to push to get into the room and campaign for a role, and not just the ones based on real-life people. In the case of fictional roles, they have to get Hollywood to see them like their white counterparts, as actors who can perform any role, no matter what color or ethnicity the script calls for. "If we're out of sight, we're out of mind," said Rowell.

Hill added, "The hope is that talent will soon supersede race and gender, and that is a hope that we are all responsible to fulfill. The studios, filmmakers, actors, and audiences all play a part in requiring and demanding things to change, and then actively changing them."