|Is Whitewashing Still a PR Problem in Hollywood?
By: Shawn Paul Wood
Hollywood began covering up a PR issue it had way back in the 1930s — it didn't hire many folk outside of the white persuasion. Times were different. Thinking was different. People were different. I get it.
However, the one place where it has been expected for anyone to buck the system would be among the "Beautiful People."
Only to be beautiful, one had to be famous and white.
In 1931, Warner Oland was hired to depict crime-fighting comic book detective Charlie Chan, beginning with the movie Charlie Chan Carries On. Good times for a comic book to come to life on the big screen. Marvel and DC thank you for it,
Only one small issue — Charlie Chan wasn't from around here. He was more eastern, like Sweden. Needless to say, looking like he hailed from China or even Honolulu was a skosh farfetched.
It made news because what happened four years later was considered a proud moment. In 1927, Al Jolson famously wore blackface when he starred in The Jazz Singer. That was a great moment then because black folk weren't allowed in the movies. Pride swoons across the black community because of that, believe it or not. This practice became known as "racebending."
Today, it's called "whitewashing."
In the '50s, The Rifleman's Chuck Conners played Geronimo. Sure, he had a chiseled chin, but come on. Then, in the 1960s, America finally woke up and spoke out. Sir Laurence Olivier played Othello in blackface (more like shoe polish, if you have seen pictures). John Wayne played Genghis Khan because that was realistic. Even Elizabeth Taylor walked like an Egyptian in Cleopatra. However, not a worse coat of lily white paint was applied in film than on Mickey Rooney and his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Hey, if it weren't for that film, Bruce Lee would never have been as motivated to do what he did in Hong Kong and back in the states. So, there's that.
You would think following what happened in Selma, Ala., and throughout the '60s, that whitewashing would stop. It did, if only for a while. Recently, there's been a slew of it — Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez in Argo, Jake Gyllenhaal played the Prince of Persia, and now a bevy of anglos are playing middle eastern guys in the new biblical biopic Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Still a problem? It's not like Hollywood is hurting for talent. There are more "no-name becoming some name" people now than ever. From America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe; name a continent and you can pinpoint an actor. Yet Batman is starring as Moses?!
Hollywood typically dons teflon and can become impervious to anything, but in this world of over-political correctiveness, how is it that casting directors are allowed to apply the shoe polish all over the faces of the beautiful people today? Maybe there's not enough whitewash to color over that stain after all.
Shawn Paul Wood
is a hack-turned-flack with more than 20 years of collective journalism, copywriting and marketing communications experience. Shawn Paul is founder of Woodworks Communications in Dallas, Texas. If you need him, ping him here
or follow him on Twitter @ShawnPaulWood