The Oscar-winning writer of Gladiator has sparked a whitewashing outcry after saying that he wants Leonardo DiCaprio to play Persian poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi in a new film about his life.
David Franzoni told the Guardian that he hopes to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema” by giving “a face and a story” to the Sufi scholar whose epic poetry has been translated into many languages and remains “hugely popular” in the United States.
However, while Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown’s plans to explore the 13th century “Shakespeare” have been welcomed, their aim of casting white Hollywood actors in the lead roles has been met with anger. Although shooting is not likely to start until next year at the earliest, Franzoni and Brown intend to approach DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr for the parts of Rumi and Iranian mystic Shams of Tabriz respectively. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” Brown said.
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 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.
Despite their failure to consider Persian actors for their Rumi movie, Franzoni and Brown have been undertaking thorough research into their subject matter. 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 where he died an old man. Last week, Franzoni and Brown 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.
“We’re trying to invent and resurrect a character at the same time because there is so much missing in the shadow of history, and some of it is idealised so you have to go back and find the human being who became a saint, because we can’t write,” said Franzoni.
The film will focus primarily on Rumi’s teachings and meeting with Shams, who mysteriously disappeared and inspired much of the former’s love poetry. It will also draw upon Rumi’s daughter Kimya, who some believe married Shams.
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.
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