ByNicolas Walli, writer at
Cinemaphile and Comic book fan, lover of the 1960s and 1970s, theoretical filmmaker.
Nicolas Walli

As the rampant war machine of Political Correctness charges behind its knights in shining armor- Social Justice Warriors- the establishment of years of American culture and society are challenged with leftist, "progressive" ideals.

One major point of contention among the internet users today deals with race and ethnicity relations. That describes many said points of contention, but only one issue- or rather a spectrum of issues has to deal with film-"Whitewashing"

There are many race-based criticisms of the American film industry, including treatment of minorities in film and inclusion of minorities in film.

"Whitewashing" refers to the practice of casting "white" actors in "Non-white" roles.

Only over the last few decades has the practice become apparent or notable, as the films of previous decades almost exclusively portrayed minorities in a derogatory light, if at all. One historical example of whitewashing is the Mr. Moto franchise from the 1930s, in which the white Hungarian Peter Lorre plays an Asian Japanese detective.

Recently, the films Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Gods of Egypt (2016) drew significant controversy for taking lead minority roles and filling them with whites.

But why is this a controversy?

At this point in the essay I should elaborate my qualifications.

My name is Nic Walli. I'm African American. I'm also Caucasian American. I'm also Middle Eastern American. I'm also fully "White". That doesn't mean I'm pale. For reference, "White" is shorthand for Caucasian ethnicity, not white skin color. Otherwise, the term would be cast aside along with "Black" as racist like such demonyms as "Yellow" and "Red". To be Caucasian means to come from the Caucasoid genetic type, one of five- the other four being Negroid/Congoid, Mongoloid, Capoid, and Australoid; the former two are now considered derogatory. My father is American born, his paternal grandfather was born in Finland, paternal great-grandparents born in Scotland, and his maternal grandparents bearing Scottish, German, English, and Welsh, though we come from the line of John Adams and thus have been in America as long as anyone. My mother was born in Lebanon and came here at four with her parents and sisters. Her father was pure Egyptian and her mother was Lebanese, Greek, Egyptian, and Syrian.

I did not lie when I said I am African American. All of the various nations of my heritage are indigenously Caucasoid, though many confuse Middle Easterners as a separate race. Nic Walli is short for Nicolas Houston Wallinkoski. It's Finnish, by the way. My middle name could have been "Khouzam", which is Egyptian, and pronounced "Hggh-oo-zahm".

So I'm going to share my thoughts on Gods of Egypt.

Right off the bat, it looks like a terrible movie. But as mentioned prior, the controversy that people discuss is the racial casting. The cast of the film is entirely "White", save Chadwick Boseman. The perceived problem is that white-white actors are playing Egyptian gods. Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Élodie Yung, and Geoffrey Rush are all "white"

The first problem with this notion is that Egyptians are not white. Just like Finnish people, Egyptians are Caucasoid; Egyptians were some of the earliest Caucasoid people.

Carleton Coon-
Carleton Coon-

The map above charts indigenous ethnic regions. Green is Caucasoid- notice Egypt- yellow is Negroid/Congoid, purple is Capoid, blue is Mongoloid, red is Australoid

The differences between Caucasoid and Negroid/Congoid can easily be observed, regardless of darkness or lightness of skin. As you will see in "White" people, Caucasoid people have thinner noses and smaller teeth compared to the Negroid genes for wider noses and larger teeth. While the genetics for larger noses are common in Middle Eastern (including Egyptian) population, Egyptian people have the skeletal and facial structure of the Caucasoid features, regardless of skin tone.

A more accurate method of describing the perceived flaw in Gods of Egypt is that the films's cast is almost entirely European or of European descent, as opposed to African (Egyptian) or said heritage. I personally postulate that most people only base their criticism on the tone of the actors' skin and their lack of knowledge of ethnicity. So, to restate: A European-Caucasoid cast is portraying an African-Caucasoid ensemble.

The looming question is how do I, Nic Walli, feel about this? While I would like to see an Egyptian cast, that's splitting hairs. I don't really mind that they aren't Egyptian. I would like to see more effort in making them appear Egyptian, but as my Grandfather used to say in Egyptian Arabic, "live and let live". Realize this: complaining that European people shouldn't portray Egyptians is like complaining that an Australian shouldn't play a Nordic god, in Thor (2011).

In Thor, an incident similar to that in Gods of Egypt is presented. The Asgardian cast is European, comprising An Australian, and Englishmen, a Welshman, and two Americans... and An African-Englishman. Idris Elba plays Heimdall, keeper of Asgard's rainbow bridge. When this casting announcement was made, the only complaints came from die-hard fans of the comic book source material. There protest was that a God worshiped by Scandinavians should be apparently Scandinavian, just as a larger group complained that Gods worshiped by Egyptian people should appear Egyptian. Idris Elba's recruitment was met with very little criticism beyond said fans. Many, including Mr. Elba and Kevin Feige, essentially the grand director behind Marvel's franchise monster, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes Thor, defended the decision, stating "race does not matter" "We promote diversity". These such statements were accepted. But why was a Black man in the role of a White man lauded while a cast of White people in the roles of White people was majorly denounced? That brings to the front the next point...

Heimdall in Thor is not the only example of what I have dubbed "Cast Coloring". The apologetic practice should be defined as casting a White (or minority) role with a dissimilar minority actor or actress. Unlike whitewashing, color casting generally receives warm reception if any recognition. As adapted materials, T.V. shows, older movies, books, and comic books most often have characters who are changed from a majority race to a minority. Such examples include Morgan Freeman as Red in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in F4ntastic (2015), most of the cast of Annie (2014), Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown (1997), the cast of The Wiz (1978), and to a much lesser extent, Jamie Foxx as the loosely-recurring character of Django in Django Unchained (2012).

Why does one receive applause and the other animosity? In my opinion, it is a double standard. Some would vehemently deny this, arguing there are not enough minority roles on the Hollywood big screen and that minority actors are at a disadvantage. Many claim it shows an disregard for color of a character; anyone can play any role. This, of course, is refuted by criticisms of whitewashing.

From my observation, the causation is somewhat obvious. The white majority of filmmakers and people with prominent voices across the social media and other platforms of criticism are apologetic. The concept of changing a character to a minority race is seen as a racial olive branch; an acknowledgement that we are all the same, regardless of race. It's a preachy, teary, pre-presidential-bid-Ted-Cruz apology and attempt at amends for the decades of racism and racialism in Hollywood. It's a way for saying, "We're sorry we painted Caucasian actors blacker than coal with big fat lips", "We're sorry Mickey Rooney played an Asian stereotype.", "We're sorry we excluded you from stardom and treated you like dirt!" But this doesn't fix any problem.

Casting Black or other minority actors in White roles doesn't make it okay. It doesn't put them on the same ground and remove the borders. The reason people criticize whitewashing, if they are minorities, is it takes roles away from actors of appropriate minority, in a film industry where there are already very few. The reason people criticize whitewashing if they are White is they are afraid to offend minorities. We as Americans have been so concerned in not offending and trying to fight the notion that we are our ancestors that we make broad statements of inclusion and acceptance. While on the basis of representation color changing is more acceptable than whitewashing, it is not in terms of equality. Minority roles should not be taken by White people and White roles should not be taken by minorities.

When a Black man is given a White man's role, he is being devalued. The filmmakers are affirming their belief that his race is the same as theirs and thus he is the same as they are. But that is not the reality. There is still disparity in the United States. While a racially African-American man has the highest office in the land, a social gap still exists. Making a White man a Black man- or rather making a Black man a White Man- is destructive. It is a comfort mechanism. It tells the filmmakers and the audience a Black man is, by default, the same as a White man- he is just as financially and socially successful. But this isn't true. It allows us to ignore the true social and economic circumstance that there is still a disparity. While a minority can achieve the same as a White person, a certain level of additional difficulty exists.

So, the solution to the problem is not give minorities White roles. While all races are equal, each has a unique identity and cultural attributes. Thus, minorities should not be placed in White roles. There should be more minority roles. More films need to star, African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American men and women. The realistic role a person in each of these groups would have is fundamentally different from that if a Caucasian person. Making Caucasians African doesn't solve the problem; it just turns our eyes from it. If we want to promote diversity and experience equality, the solution is simple; promote diversity. Don't retrofit what's already there. "Here, we'll give you what's left of our food that we didn't eat." The Black man deserves his own meal, not portions of the White man's unwanted. Just as the White man shouldn't steal food from the Black man. Or the Asian Woman.

Another case of whitewashing held in controversy was Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017). The lead character is Asian, and Ms. Johansson is Caucasian. There was much backlash for her casting. While Asian actress should absolutely have the role, personally, I don't care too much. I'm not actually familiar with the character. On a personal level, I only care if a character's race is changed if I care about the character. Heimdall was against my liking, as I want the most accurate portrayal of the character, and because Marvel has many Black leading characters they could portray instead of changing a White man. I don't care that Denzel Washington took the role in The Equalizer (2014) because I don't care about that character. On an ethical level, I do care. The few roles for a leading Asian lady should be kept for her. Aware of the character's race, the film crew experimented with special effects to alter Ms. Johansson's appearance. This of course was met with backlash.

In a perfect world, there would be an abundance of minority roles. In a perfect world, an actor or actress could be made to look a different ethnicity to place without drawing controversy, if he or she were perfect for the role, as the author of Ghost in the Shell believes Ms. Johansson is for her character. But we do not live in a perfect world. I believe that the perfect person should play whatever role, and if their ethnicities do not align, make-up the actor rather than change the character, just as we do with eye color. But since race and eye color are very different, and minority roles are in short supply, we cannot do this. A White man playing the experience of a Black man could one day be a wonderful film, but as there are so few films with Black leads, coupled with a history of stereotypes in black face, this can't work today.

For years, White actors played minorities via make-up in stereotypical and highly offensive roles. In today's culture, racial moonlighting is considered offensive as a practice overall. But in the perfect world, this doesn't have to be the case. An example exists where a White man played an Asian man as an Asian man, and in my opinion, did so with tact, respect, awareness, and acknowledgement.

The Mr. Moto series of flims (eight over the course of two years) from the 1930s, adapted from a novel series, stars Caucasian-Hungarian Peter Lorre as the Asian-Japanese detective Kentaro Moto. Lorre wears makeup over his eyes and possibly jaw prosthetic.

Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

But unlike those of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Lorre's prosthesis are realistic, modest, and believable; Rooney bore the stereotypical fangs et al. associated with 1940s war propaganda. Throughout the films, during which Moto travels the world, the main character is treated as well as any other film protagonist at the time, and displays intellect, wit, sincerity, and incredible fighting skills. Not only is Moto a realistic Asian man, but with little to no exceptions the casts of each movie are realistic and portrayed like people, with minorities of various regions portrayed. If you are familiar with Lorre, he is a talented actor with an extensive career spanning German Expressionism and the camp of Roger Corman. As Moto, Lorre first jars you with his ethnicity and accent, but as you watch the character, you forget he is Lorre; much less his ethnicity. That could be the power of a talented actor. But this film series is an outlier among outliers. There were no roles for Asians then and there are still few now. But Lorre was picked for his perfection in the role and made to match.

If we can ever get to a point where the American experience is the same for every race, on screen and in life, any actor or actress could play any role as the role was meant to be portrayed, regardless of race or color. But today, we are not there. Today, we miss the target with good intentions and step to far ahead of ourselves by putting minorities in White roles and vice versa. We try to acknowledge equality by ignoring the very things that make us unique and discrediting these differences. But if we want to solve the problem, we need more starring roles intended for minorities.


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