Deep Analysis of “Whitewashing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)”

In the video “Whitewashing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)”, the narrator asks why Hollywood whitewashing is still happening today and shows a variety of examples affecting all different races, which deepened my thinking by showing how often it happens to everyone (not just Asians), how filmmakers justify whitewashing, and how movies about minorities highly feature the few white people in those films. This matters because all minorities and their roles are being replaced by white people, when it’s clearly the wrong thing to do. Overall, this video supported my views about Hollywood’s inability and unwillingness to change.

The video had an abundance of examples that exhibited roles for minorities going to white actors. The narrator states, “white actors have taken roles from every ethnicity”, ranging from John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror, Natalie Wood as Maria (a Puerto Rican) in Westside Story, and the countless of Asian roles that have been whitewashed, like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed. Mickey Rooney’s caricature of an Asian man was actually praised by the NY Times in 1961 saying that his performance as the “bucktoothed, myopic Japanese [was] broadly exotic”. These instances aren’t even touching upon modern day films where roles calling for people of color are still going to white actors, despite how problematic it has been in the past. Gerard Butler and Christian Bale, who are Scottish and British respectively, both played Egyptian characters in different movies; and in case any reader has forgotten, Egypt is in Africa. All of these examples prove how often ethnic roles are given to the wrong actors and taking away opportunities from minorities who can fit the role better.

Race of Actors from the Top 100 Movies of 2014; Photo Courtesy: PBS

Filmmakers are able to justify the reason why they give roles for certain races to white actors. It typically has to do with how much money they can make; for example, Ridley Scott, the director for Exodus: Gods and Kings, said he can’t have a film when the lead actor is “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.” It’s a disgusting generalization of people from one place, implying that there’s a negative connotation with more ethnic actors. Other people have said that there just aren’t enough good roles for minority actors and it’s because “when there are roles for non-white actors, they sometimes still get played by white people”. People of color can’t win in any scenario because filmmakers won’t even consider them, since it isn’t guaranteed that POC will make big profits.

This video showed how “movies for minorities will still put white people in the foreground” like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Emma Stone in The Help, and Kevin Costner in Dancing with Wolves. Even though these movies have diverse casts and storylines about , they focus on the few white characters in the film. Placing them in the center of movies about people of color makes the story feel inauthentic. Putting the spotlight on the single white character takes away from the story about the people of color in the film, making it seem like there aren’t interesting stories within minority groups that could be told instead. White people find it surprising that POC have their own stories to tell and live a life that’s as full and universal as theirs, so it’s time they step out of the spotlight and let other people share their experiences.

This video has broadened my original opinion about whitewashing in Hollywood since now I know that this happens a lot to every race as well as Asians and that even if there is a film with many minorities, the focus will still be on a white character. Also, this video has confirmed that filmmakers can justify this to themselves, with no regard to how racist they sound, just to make as much money as possible. Hollywood is still very much a flawed industry and I don’t think white actors will speak against whitewashing, since they are the ones profiting from it.


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