25 Shocking Examples Of White Actors Portraying People Of Color On Screen

Published November 21, 2020
Updated November 23, 2020

Hollywood has a long history of whitewashing the past, and these outrageous casting decisions prove it.

Angelina Jolie As Mariane Pearl
Jack Palance As Fidel Castro
Ben Affleck As Tony Mendez
Elizabeth Taylor As Cleopatra
25 Shocking Examples Of White Actors Portraying People Of Color On Screen
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When it comes to diversity, Hollywood has a problematic history — not only in the types of stories it brings to the screen but also in deciding who gets to tell them. And the common practice of casting white actors to play people of other races is emblematic of this fraught issue.

In classic films, Shirley Temple's blackface and John Wayne's portrayal of the Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan stand out as examples of harmful, racist representations.

And even with the heightened awareness of race issues today, this trend known as "whitewashing," is still alive and well in modern filmmaking. Even A-listers like Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck have come under fire for portraying Black and Latino real-life figures.

Take a look at 25 people of color from history whose stories were deliberately whitewashed when white actors portrayed them.

Hollywood's Tradition Of Whitewashing People Of Color

Sam Lucas

Wikimedia CommonsSam Lucas was the first Black actor to fill the lead role in Uncle Tom's Cabin in the U.S. in 1878.

Historians trace the whitewashing of entertainment back to the mid-19th century in American theater. Back then, Minstrel shows — sketch shows depicting African American characters played by white actors in blackface paint — were popular. Their popularity shaped many early films and left traces that can be seen in cartoons to this day.

Additionally, a very successful mid-18th-century production of The Orphan of China, adapted from the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao popularized yellowface in America. The show predated the arrival of Chinese immigrants by a century, resulting in a fetishized version of "Orientalism" as westerners imagined Chinese or Asian culture at large to be.

Racial discrimination in the early days of movie-making in the late nineteenth century reflected the segregated society of the time. Opportunities for non-white actors were nearly non-existent.

Even when films focused on minority figures' stories, directors still wouldn't hire actors of the same ethnicity to play them. Instead, they hired white actors and placed them in gaudy prosthetics to mimic the race or ethnicity of the characters.

Filmmakers often turned to blackface, the practice of painting white actors in all-Black body paint with exaggerated features meant to mimic African Americans. Similarly, casting directors used yellowface, brownface, and redface as they attempted to depict other non-Black minorities.

Later, the Hays Code — a group of "morality" guidelines imposed on major motion pictures from 1934 to 1968 — explicitly prohibited casting a minority actor in a role where they might be perceived as a white character's love interest.

Today, growing awareness around diversity has spawned calls against whitewashing roles meant to portray non-white characters, both fictional and historical.

Still, as evidenced by the gallery above, Hollywood still has a long way to go to stop erasing and whitewashing stories that belong to people of color.

The Real Consequences Of Whitewashing Throughout History

Julia Roberts As Harriet Tubman Rumor

Wikimedia Commons'Harriet' screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed that an executive in the 1990s wanted actress Julia Roberts to play Black abolitionist Harriet Tubman, saying, "It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."

While some white audiences justify whitewashing stories due to the "creative" aspect of movie-making, there are real consequences to it. One of them is the constant marginalization and "othering" of non-white communities.

For example, early film adaptations of the famous slave story Uncle Tom's Cabin based on the 19th century novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe primarily starred white actors in blackface as Uncle Tom and the story's other Black main characters. These actors then relied on stereotypes to portray "Blackness."

Another issue in this example are the racist stereotypes embedded in the story itself. Stowe, a white woman, wrote her novel based on the real memoirs of Josiah Henson, a formerly enslaved Black man who escaped to Canada.

Henson's story, thus, became distorted through the perspective of a white woman — and white movie actors — who could not possibly understand or accurately represent the experiences of a Black slave.

Additionally, casting white talent instead of non-white actors to depict people of color takes work away from minority actors. To make matters worse, non-white actors already face racial bias when trying to secure roles in the predominantly white industry.

According to the 2014 study "Inequality in 700 Popular Films" by the University of Southern California, an average of 75.2 percent of speaking roles in Hollywood went to white actors, and some of those roles were actually portraying characters of color.

Furthermore, the insistence of casting white actors in lead roles perpetuates the myth that movies starring non-white talents don't sell. That inaccurate belief keeps the cycle of whitewashing based on "financial considerations" going.

"The myth that 'Black doesn't travel' would be laughable if its perpetuation weren't so damaging," said David White, the National Executive Director of the actors' union SAG-AFTRA. "From Will Smith to Denzel Washington to David Oyelowo, the work of Black actors is consumed and celebrated in markets across the globe."

And as actor Sun Mee Chomet told Teen Vogue, "It is the height of white privilege to think a white person is better equipped to play an Asian character than an Asian person."

Hopefully, with consistent calls for diversity, the erasure of people of color in film will eventually cease. But if Hollywood's history is anything to go by, it will take a lot of hard work to get there.

Now that you've learned about Hollywood's history of whitewashing, checkout the real-life people behind some of its box office hits including the mobsters portrayed in 'Goodfellas' and the Black NASA engineer depicted in 'Hidden Figures.'

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Ishak, Natasha. "25 Shocking Examples Of White Actors Portraying People Of Color On Screen." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 21, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/whitewashed-movies. Accessed June 25, 2024.