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Angelina Jolie As Mariane Pearl
The 2007 film A Mighty Heart caused quite a stir. Not only because it was a drama based on the stirring memoir written by Mariane Pearl, the real-life wife of journalist Daniel Pearl who was executed by the Taliban, but because the movie chose to cast Angelina Jolie in the titular role.
The casting raised much criticism given that Pearl is of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage while Jolie is descended from a line of white Europeans. To make things more uncomfortable, Jolie dons a "corkscrew wig" in the film, an awkward hint at the true heritage of the real-life person she was portraying. Getty Images/IMDB
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Jack Palance as Fidel Castro
Jack Palance, a Ukrainian American actor, portrayed Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro in the 1969 movie Che!. Palance's skin is noticeably much darker in the film, and, like many white actors that commonly took up whitewashed roles in the past, this wasn't Palance's first offense.
The white actor also played an Indigenous Apache chief's son in Arrowhead (1953).Getty Images
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Ben Affleck As Antonio J. Mendez
In Argo (2012), Ben Affleck plays real-life CIA agent Antonio Mendez, who posed as a Hollywood film producer to save six American hostages in Iran during the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis. The whitewashing is even worse when you realize Affleck had a lot of authority over the film's production.
"He said, 'Well, they wouldn't have made the movie if I wasn't playing the role.' Bulls—t," said actor-director Edward James Olmos, who is Mexican American like Mendez. "He was directing it, he wrote it. It won the best film of the year Academy Award, so what are you talking about?" Olmos added real Latino actors like Michael Peña, or Andy Garcia could've easily taken on the meaty role.Jonna Mendez via NYT/IMDB
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Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
As one of the most powerful women in history, Cleopatra has been portrayed by many actresses. The most famous is, no doubt, Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal in the 1963 eponymous film. But depictions of Cleopatra by mostly white actresses have been criticized since she is considered an African (Egyptian) queen, and there is evidence she may have had Black African heritage.
While there's debate about Cleopatra's true lineage, the consensus seems that she was unlikely to be as fair-skinned as Taylor, who is white European.Wikimedia Commons/IMDB
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Jim Sturgess as Jeffrey Ma
Jim Sturgess's role as the ring leader of an underground blackjack team from MIT won big among audiences in the movie 21 (2008). But did you know his character "Ben" was based on a real person? Jeffrey Ma, an Asian American from Massachusetts, led the blackjack team at MIT to multimillion-dollar wins on the Las Vegas strip.
But the film's whitewashing goes beyond Ma — while the majority of the MIT team members were of Asian ancestry, Sturgess' on-screen crew is mostly made up of white actors including Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth.IMDB
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Sean Connery as Mulai Ahmed Er Raisuni
In 1975's The Wind and the Lion, Sean Connery plays Mulai Ahmed Er Raisuni, a leader of Berber insurrectionists in Morocco in the 20th Century. Berbers are the Indigenous people of northern Africa.
One look at the real-life Raisuni, who is
described as a Robin Hood-type, it's obvious the role was purposefully whitewashed when Connery, a white British actor, was cast to star in the film.Wikimedia Commons/IMDB
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Shirley Temple's blackface as a Black slave child
Blackface was a common practice in early Hollywood due to the overt racism which prevented Black actors from taking up lead roles that were supposed to be Black characters. The solution: white actors in horrendously offensive blackface. It was so common even Shirley Temple donned blackface in her 1935 movie The Littlest Rebel.
Though she didn't portray a specific Black character while wearing blackface, it was still a bizarre scene that was part of the pro-slave holding southern propaganda infused throughout the film.IMDB
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Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson
In what is probably the most baffling whitewashings in recent memory, Joseph Fiennes portrays Black music icon Michael Jackson in the TV movie Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon (2016). The film is based on the rumored getaway between the artist with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
Of course, news of the white British actor depicting the African American star was not received well. Fiennes argued that Jackson had a "pigmentation issue" so his skin color was "closer to my color than his original color." Not even the Daily Mail could make this up.Getty Images/ Sky Arts/IMDB
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Johnny Depp as Tonto
The Lone Ranger (2013) was a film adaptation of the fictional TV series of the same name. The movie shifted the story's focus toward Tonto, a Native American warrior who knew Lone Ranger John Reid. In a regressive move, they decided to cast white actor Johnny Depp for the Indigenous role. First Nation actor Jay Silverheel had actually played the TV-version of Tonto in 1949.
Pressed on his whitewashed character, Depp pulled out the cliché go-to for white Americans caught cosplaying Native Americans: he claimed he had "some Native American somewhere down the line."Columbia Pictures/IMDB
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Catherine Zeta Jones as Griselda Blanco
Veteran actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is Welsh, sparked criticism for her portrayal of real-life Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco in 2017's Cocaine Godmother. The film opened to terrible reviews. As Hahn Nguyen wrote for Indiewire: "While tinting Zeta-Jones' skin is thankfully kept to a minimum, the fake Colombian accent is as blatant as any costume or bronzer...it doesn't help that the script is pretty darn awful either."
It is hardly a surprise from the same actress who donned a similar fake accent while playing a Latina character in The Mask of Zorro (1998).IMDB
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Katherine Hepburn's yellowface as a Chinese farmer
As common as it was for white actors to don blackface to portray Black characters, yellowface portrayals of Asians were unsurprisingly popular too. Among the most famous yellowface roles is Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of a Chinese woman set during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1944's Dragon Seed. The white American actress donned prosthetic eyelids and a black wig for the role.
Though the film is now mocked as a classic example of Hollywood's long tradition of whitewashing Asian characters, back then such roles were grounds for white actors to win accolades. Hepburn's co-star Aline MacMahon, a white actress who plays Ling Tan's wife, was nominated for an Oscar.Getty Images
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Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash
2001's A Beautiful Mind saw actress Jennifer Connelly portray the wife of real-life mathematician John Nash — except Connelly is white and Nash's wife, Alicia, was South American.
Nash (née Lardé), who was a physicist and former MIT student, was Salvadoran.Getty/Imagine Entertainment/IMDB
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John Wayne as Genghis Khan
When people think of John Wayne, they usually think of an all-American man in cowboy boots. So it might come as a shock to learn that the quintessential American frontier man once donned a heavy tan and fake mustache to play Genghis Khan in 1956's The Conqueror.
Wayne was of white European ancestry and a notorious racist. Khan, who founded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, was decidedly not white and was born near the border of present-day Mongolia and Siberia. IMDB/Flickr
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Christian Bale as Moses
Christian Bale fills the main role as Moses, who led the exodus of Israelites out of Egypt 3,000 years ago, in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings. Moses, however, hails from the ancient Middle East, so he was likely several shades darker than Bale, a white Englishman.
But Bale wasn't the only whitewash of the film. The movie spurred an online campaign calling for its boycott due to the entire lead cast being white, including Australian Joel Edgerton as Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Great. In contrast, the film cast minority actors in servant roles. Director Ridley Scott apologized but still defended his deliberate choice to cast white actors as his leads.Wikimedia Commons/Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB
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Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata
How might a white American actor portray a Mexican revolutionary? Just look at Marlon Brando, who plays the historic Mexican figure Emiliano Zapata in 1952's Viva Zapata!.
The film as a whole fails to do Zapata's legacy justice. Brando's dubious casting becomes even stranger by the fact that director Elia Kazan, a former communist, made the film shortly before he began informing for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Getty Images/IMDB
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Fred Astaire in blackface as Billy Robinson
In his prime, there was no better dancer in Hollywood than Fred Astaire — except Black tap-dancing icon Billy Robinson, who Astaire admits was his idol. In a weird attempt to pay homage to the Black dancing legend, Astaire donned blackface to "evoke" Robinson's persona in the 1936 film Bojangles of Harlem.Wikimedia Commons/Everett Collection
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Juliette Binoche as Maria Segovia
In The 33 (2015), Juliette Binoche portrays Maria Segovia, best-known for her enduring activism during the rescue of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days.
Binoche, however, is a French actress of Polish European descent while Segovia is a dark-skinned Chilean woman.Getty Images/Half Circle LLC/IMDB
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Mena Suvari as Chante Mallard
The public criticized Mena Suvari for her role as Chante Mallard in the 2007 film Stuck based on the true story of a woman sentenced to 50 years in prison after she hit a homeless man with her car. Why? One glaring issue: Mallard is Black.
Making the whitewashing worse was the racialized decision to give Suvari's character cornrows, a hairstyle commonly associated with Black American culture. "I think we just wanted to kind of establish Brandi as a particular kind of girl from a particular place," Suvari said, whatever that means.Ralph Lauer-Pool/Ft. Worth Star/IMDB
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Yul Brynner as Siam King Rama IV
As far as famous whitewashing goes, Yul Brynner — a white Russian American actor — is a repeat offender. But his most peculiar whitewashed role was perhaps when he shaved his head and donned bronzer to play Siam King Rama IV in The King and I (1956). He still won an Oscar for it, though.Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images
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Tony Curtis as Ira Hayes
Did you know at least one of the American soldiers who hoisted the U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima was a Pima Native American? Ira Hayes was a marine who served in the Second World War and whose service was forever immortalized in the iconic photograph from Iwo Jima.
His legacy is portrayed in 1961's The Outsider by actor Tony Curtis, who wore a prosthetic nose in the film and is of white European descent.Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images
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William Mapother as Sgt. Jason Thomas
In World Trade Center (2006), white actor William Mapother plays real-life Sgt. Jason Thomas, who helped rescue two NY Port Authority Officers from beneath 20 feet of twisted metal and rubble during 9/11. His casting received criticism after Thomas' true identity as a Black marine veteran was revealed.
A petition circulated among African American networks calling for the film's boycott. Though the director claimed the "miscast" was only found out after production started, given Hollywood's penchant for whitewashing real minority figures in the past, it's hard to say whether an earlier revelation would have made any difference.Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press/IMDB
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Chuck Connors as Geronimo
Real-life Apache warrior Geronimo was whitewashed in thi 1962 film that bears his name. The Native American leader was portrayed by blue-eyed white actor Chuck Connors who wore a long black wig and a racially stereotypical version of what Hollywood imagined was a Native American outfit.Wikimedia Commons/IMDB
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Jeffrey Hunter as Guy Gabaldon
Another American war hero whitewashed by Hollywood is Guy Gabaldon. Known as the 'Piped Piper of Saipan,' Gabaldon was heralded a hero after he successfully persuaded 1,300 Japanese soldiers and civilians to peacefully surrender during the battles for Saipan in WWII.
Gabaldon, who is of Mexican descent, is portrayed by white actor Jeffrey Hunter in Hell to Eternity (1960).AP/IMDB
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David Anders as Miyamoto Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi is a legendary Japanese samurai who fought at Sekigahara, one of the most critical battles in Japanese history. A fictional depiction of the samurai named Takezo Kensei was featured in the TV series Heroes.
But instead of casting an Asian American actor to fill the role of the samurai, studio executives chose to cast naturally-blonde actor David Anders instead.Wikimedia Commons/IMDB
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Burt Lancaster as Massai
Hollywood evidently has a long history of whitewashing Native American figures. Among the most popular roles in this realm is Burt Lancaster's portrayal of Massai, the real-life Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo.
Lancaster, whose grandparents were Irish, took on the role of Massai in 1954's Apache.Wikimedia Commons/IMDB
25 Shocking Examples Of White Actors Portraying People Of Color On Screen
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
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 Zhaopopularized 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
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.'
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.