If Leonardo DiCaprio plays Persian poet Rumi, I won't be surprised - whitewashing is an old Hollywood habit

In the strange world of Hollywood whitewashing, it somehow becomes appropriate to cast Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, Johnny Depp as Tonto, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and John Wayne as Genghis Khan

Yasmin Ahmed
Wednesday 08 June 2016 15:46 BST
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Leonardo DiCaprio has been lined up to play 13th-century scholar Rumi despite being a white American
Leonardo DiCaprio has been lined up to play 13th-century scholar Rumi despite being a white American

Just when we thought Hollywood has learned its lesson on its whitewashing tendencies after the #OscarsSoWhite debate, screenwriter David Franzoni announced this week that he would like to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as 13th-century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi.

Though the purpose of challenging stereotypical portrayals of race in a film is worthy of praise, this new controversy highlights Hollywood’s continuous whitewashing history which is deeply embedded in the industry. If you’ve never heard of whitewashing in Hollywood, odds are you’ve probably seen it anyway. And while they don’t resort to having actors in blackface today, the practice of simply changing the race of a character – even a character based on a real life person, as we saw with Zoe Saldana being cast as Nina Simone - has a long and unhappy tradition in Hollywood cinema.

In the strange world of Hollywood whitewashing, it somehow becomes appropriate to cast Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, Johnny Depp as Tonto, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and John Wayne as Genghis Khan, to name a few. And let’s not forget that Disney decided to cast Jack Gyllenhaal to portray the lead Persian Prince by slapping a spray tan on him - because there certainly aren’t enough Iranian actors in America. Meanwhile, Iranian actors are playing Pakistani terrorists on shows like Homeland. When Hollywood wants a terrorist to play a role, they can find actors of colour in abundance, but for more influential parts it suddenly become difficult – even impossible - to find them.

And that’s not the only way in which racial stereotypes affect prominent actors. Yesterday Kerry Washington said in an interview with Aziz Ansari that she was fired from two TV series before Scandal because the directors wanted her to be more “urban” and that she wasn’t “hood” enough. And last year the new author of James Bond, Anthony Horowitz, sparked a social media outcry when he said that Idris Elba was "too street" and “a bit too rough” to play Bond. Horowitz later apologised for his “clumsy” remarks but the message is clear: if you’re black, we expect you to be some kind of walking caricature from the ghetto.

Often people will protest a character's race being changed from white to black, yet there was very little fuss when Harry Potter re-casted Lavender Brown. A role played by two different black actresses in the second and third films, Lavender’s part surprisingly became white for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The timing of the race change wasn’t unpredictable, as Lavender went from playing an almost non-visible role to playing bigger role as one of the lead characters’ love interests in Half-Blood Prince.

The issue here is that whitewashing history tells untrue or sanitised stories about personal struggles, and placing a white actor into a story that does not belong to them eliminates important issues. When fictional characters are casted, there's no historical or cultural significance to the given roles - as in the case of black Hermione in the new Harry Potter production. But the casting choices, as we saw with on-screen Lavender Brown, speak volumes.

There are no excuses for whitewashing and race-bending in films. Simply claiming that talent and personality was prioritised over physical appearance is not a justification; it’s difficult to believe that there were no actors of colour who were able to play a character of even the most niche nationality. For this reason, I hope Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t take up the offer of playing Rumi. He’d be depriving someone who could tell a much more truthful story – and perpetuating the Hollywood habit of a lifetime.

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