Whitewashing: Where’s the Line?

Native American Iron Eyes Cody touched the conscience of America when he appeared in the iconic “crying Indian” anti-litter campaign.

One problem: He wasn’t a Native American named Iron Eyes Cody. He was Tony Corti, a white American born of Sicilian parents.

Nowadays we call that “whitewashing” – hiring white actors to portray Asians, Native Americans, or other races or ethnicities. It is a practice that has outlived its day and is decried as an insult as grievous as blackface and minstrel shows.

Take Mr. Yunioshi, the character in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, played by Mickey Rooney – he’s not funny and is offensive to everyone of Japanese ancestry.

But where do we draw the line?

When Jennifer Lawrence was hired to play Katniss Everdeen in the film The Hunger Games, there was grumbling that she required makeup to darken her skin to the olive shade specified in the book.

Was that whitewashing? Couldn’t they have hired an actor with naturally olive skin to play the role? Almost certainly.

But where’s the offense? Actors wear makeup all the time to perform their roles on stage and screen. Also wigs, hair color, padding, breast implants, cotton balls in their cheeks, prosthetics, and digital edited everything. David Carradine (6’1″) played Woody Guthrie (5’7″) in Bound for Glory, before the days when camera angles and special effects could make Legolas taller than Gimli.

Couldn’t the casting agents have found actors that had the “right” hair color, breast size, facial contours, height, plus the requisite acting talent?

Sure they could.

I mean, I get it. Height, hair color, and so forth are superficial physical traits, not cultural or racial identities. Halloween costume that misappropriate cultures (“Seductive Squaw,” “Harem Girl”), ethnicities (“Tequila Shooter Dude”), and even religion (“Rasta Imposta”) are just another appalling example of insensitivity and racism as inaccurate as stereotypical or whitewashed portrayals on film.

Opinions may be changing, though race in movies is still controversial. Black American actor Louis Gossett, Jr., played Anwar Sadat (half-black, half-Arab) on film and the only notable complaints were from Egyptians. But there was pushback against lighter-skinned Afro-Latina actor Zoe Saldana playing the very dark-skinned black singer Nina Simone in a biopic.

(Surprisingly, I found during my research that Sir Ben Kingsley was not a totally inappropriate choice for the title role in Gandhi. He’s part-Indian and his birth name is Krishna Pandit Bhanji.)

While, we’re on the subject, what about voice-washing? Does it exist under somewhat the same umbrella as whitewashing? Isn’t there a real Polish-speaking actress who could have played in Sophie’s Choice? A Danish woman for Out of Africa? Meryl Streep is the go-to actress for “foreign” accents. Maybe you get a pass if you’re a mega-star.

And how about a little accuracy in accents, while we’re at it? Not all Southern accents are alike. The speech of a Texan, a Georgian, and a Louisianan are not interchangeable, yet we see movies all the time set in the southern U.S. with actors speaking in a hodgepodge of different “Southern” accents.

Listen, I’m just saying that the conversation over whitewashing may not be as simple as it at first seems. Terrible things have been done to Native American persons and culture on film, from farcical stereotypes to accepting Italian or Hispanic substitutes for Native actors under the theory, I suppose, that brown skin is brown skin, and even olive isn’t too far off with a little help from Maybelline.

Admitting that Katniss Everdeen and Mr. Yunioshi represent opposite ends of a spectrum would be a place to start, though.

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