Nearly 7,000 people have signed a petition demanding producers cast a Middle Eastern actor to play Persian poet Rumi in a new film about his life.
Screenwriters David Franzoni and Stephen Joel Brown told the Guardian in a recent interview that they hope to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema” before stating their intention to cast DiCaprio in the lead and fellow white US actor Robert Downey Jr as Iranian mystic Shams of Tabriz.
Their comments sparked an instant, fierce backlash, with the #RumiWasntWhite hashtag soon trending on Twitter. “The idea that DiCaprio is the best actor in the world for every part in history is all about worshipping whiteness,” one user said, while another wrote: “Remember when [black actor] Idris Elba wasn’t ‘English enough’ to play James Bond, but it’s chill if DiCaprio plays Rumi”. Others voiced their anger at how “easily” Hollywood finds Muslim actors to play terrorists yet wants a white man to play a Sufi scholar.
“Casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi rewrites history, takes possession of Muslim accomplishments and gives the credit to a white man,” reads the petition, set up by Valerie Janovic. “Now, when people think of Rumi, they’ll picture him with pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Muslim actors are readily typecast as terrorists but when a movie portrays a Muslim in a positive light, they are shunted off to the side to make room for another white actor. The casting for the Rumi movie is not yet final and together we can change it.”
A source close to DiCaprio commented on the rumours, saying: “He hasn't been asked but regardless he will not be pursuing the project”. It remains unknown whether the producers have other white actors on their list, and a planned release date is yet to be announced.
The lack of diversity in film is a controversial issue at the moment. The Academy failed to nominate a single black actor in its leading Oscars categories for the second year running, while Marvel has come under fire for casting Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan mystic in Doctor Strange. The castings of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, Emma Stone as an Asian pilot in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson as Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell and Zoe Saldana as the considerably darker-skinned soul singer Nina Simone have also provoked fury.
Hollywood whitewashing controversies
Hollywood whitewashing controversies
1/11 Scarlett Johansson cast as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell
Blonde, white US actress Scarlett Johansson was announced to be playing the clearly Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in Hollywood's Ghost in the Shell remake, much to the dismay of Asian film fans
2/11 Tilda Swinton cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange
Marvel sparked outrage when Anglo-Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast as Tibetan mystic The Ancient One alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Zoe Saldana was criticised for 'blacking up' to play the considerably darker-skinned soul singer Nina Simone in Nina
4/11 Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Prince of Persia
The half Jewish, quarter Swedish actor was cast to play a Middle Eastern Prince in Disney's 2010 film
5/11 Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in forthcoming film Pan
Mara was been cast in the role of American Indian Tiger Lily, sparking an online protest from angry film fans
6/11 Christian Bale plays Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ridley Scott claimed he would never cast 'Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such a country' in a lead role in his Biblical epic, and went on to cast an entirely white cast instead
7/11 Jim Caveziel plays Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
Catholic star Mel Gibson chose to cast a Caucasian American actor in the role of Jesus for his controversial film
8/11 Micky Rooney plays a Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Who better to play Holly Golightly's Japanese neighbour IY Yunoishi than American actor Mick Rooney. At least Hollywood has come some way since 1961
9/11 Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo
Ben Affleck became the subject of a few editorials in Latin American newspapers for casting himself (an American with English, Irish, Scottish and Swiss ancestry) as a Mexican CIA operative
10/11 Jennifer Connelly plays Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind
Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé was a naturalised US citizen from El Salvador, but was played by an actress of Jewish, Irish and Norwegian descent
11/11 Chinese actresses cast in Memoirs of a Geisha
What better way to alienate Japanese cinemagoers than to cast three Chinese actresses in the lead roles in a film about Japanese culture
Despite their failure to consider Persian actors for the role of Rumi, Franzoni and Brown have been undertaking thorough research into their subject matter. They recently travelled to Turkey, where they met Rumi experts in Istanbul and visited his mausoleum in Konya in a bid to build “credible and identifiable profiles” of the characters from Islamic mythology.
During the Mongol invasion, Rumi was forced to flee his birthplace of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan. He travelled as a refugee through Baghdad, Mecca and Damascus before settling in Konya. Aged roughly 39, he met the like-minded Shams, who helped him develop a deeper understanding of humanity and unlock his poetic talents.
Franzoni and Brown’s film will focus primarily on Rumi’s teachings and meeting with Shams, who mysteriously disappeared (some believe he was killed by Rumi’s jealous son while others think he married Rumi’s outspoken daughter Kimya) and inspired much of a bereft Rumi’s most acclaimed poetry. In 2014, he was the best-selling poet in the US while his epics Masnavi and the Divan are widely considered among the best poetry every written.
A source close to DiCaprio said: "He hasn't been asked but regardless he will not be pursuing the project". A planned release date is yet to be announced.