Thoughts and Perspectives

Tim’s Racial Studies Blog, “Whitewashing in Films,” and a Dialogue

Tim had a really interesting blog post yesterday about Whitewashing in Films based on this articleI wanted to take a minute to address some of the points. 

The article, “25 Minority Characters That Hollywood Whitewashed”, to which Tim was responding misses out by neglecting to recognize that films do not exist to duplicate or represent reality. Films are fiction. Further, there are always huge gaps between a film about a novel or a film about a person. Film, like any medium, has its own opportunities and limitations. When looking at films based on History, I always go to the point that a film representing a year or even years in the span of two hours or so is going to leave out much more than it includes. What and who is and isn’t included is very important.

Additionally, the article suggest that White actors took away roles from Asian or Black characters. Assigning the blame to a specific performer really misses the point altogether. (For example, “And though his performance may have been great, the fact that he took a major role away from an African-American actor is just shameful—especially when you consider the fact that this film came out in 1965, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.”) The individual actor has no such control per se. 

Nonetheless, this raises important questions about Black Face and Neo-Black Face (and its various manifestations). Ethically speaking, should non-White characters ever be represented by White actors? The same question could be asked when we discuss heterosexual actors and actresses playing non-heterosexual or LGBT roles.

Acting is acting and is a world of make-believe. But still anytime you have an individual in the majority group playing a minority character, it involves a certain degree of cultural appropriation. We don’t mind seeing so-and-so playing an Asian Man or so-and-so playing playing a transgender or gay person because it is not real.

I also think it is really important and necessary to get opinions from various people. As Tim discussed, his Asian friends found Breakfast at Tiffany’s to be funny and his White friends found it to be offensive. One question this raises to me is: do Asians have to find it funny for fear of being labeled “difficult”? Why would White people find the character offensive? Would these people have the same reaction if the Asian person was actually Asian? Do Asians find it funny because it is a White person pretending to be Asian and showing their use of stereotypes? 

Also, when looking at such films and questions, we have to look at the systemic and institutional aspects, not just one film or one character or one reaction. This neat Youtube video has some interesting points (embedded below except for email subscribers): 

This also raises the question about the number of White characters in Hollywood film and the lack of non-White characters. I fully agree with Tim that Hollywood ultimately wants to make money. Some lines of thought suggest that there are so few Blacks, Asians, Filipinos, etc is because they are a small part of the population. While the sentiment here rings correct, it focuses in some ways too much on how people are racialized per se. Additionally, think about the White characters represented in film. They are far from representative of what most White people actually do and are capable of. So the problem is under and miss representation across the board of everyday (White) people, plus the under and miss representation of People of Color.

Film perpetually over represents heterosexual rich White cis-Men. 

So while the specific filmic representations (stories and peoples) do not and cannot provide a true reflection of society, film does mirror and shape a society’s hopes and fears. This is part of where the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy comes into play. Society “prefers” White characters because that is what Hollywood has given them (we can’t forget the nation’s love of film began with Birth of a Nation – the most racist film in History by many accounts), society and History tell them all too often that they rule society, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having White characters in roles that actually need non-White characters reminds me of some films about Egypt or Alexander the Great that use all White people – there is no attempt to make them look different either! It also is reminiscent of early film and of the character Jim Crow – a White Man in Black Face designed.

For example, 12 Years a Slave would have been an absolute tragedy if it had used a White characters in Black Face instead of a people who are actually Black. It would be seen as belittling the Black experience and making a kind of sick comedy out of it. 

But again, Hollywood alone is not the problem. Hollywood in some ways, as I’m writing about in my dissertation, does a surprisingly good job at recreating some very real and important aspects of History.

One thing is for certain – racialization is so complicated and messy because while it is not real, it is so, so very real.  

That’s enough for now. This posting isn’t as organized as I had hoped, but hopefully it will help continue this conversation.  We need to discuss the White Savior Figure, too! 

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

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