Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?

Luchina Fisher, ABC News, June 4, 2008

In the new movie “Stuck,” which opened last week, actress Mena Suvari plays a young woman named Brandi, who, after a night of partying, strikes a homeless man with her car, sending him through her windshield, and leaves him to die.

The plot is based on the real-life story of Texas woman Chante Mallard, who, at age 27, was convicted of murder and evidence tampering, and given 50-year and 10-year concurrent sentences after she hit Gregory Biggs and left him to die stuck in her windshield.

Mallard is African-American. Suvari, the blonde, blue-eyed beauty from “American Beauty” and the “American Pie” movies, is not. But she does wear cornrows to play the role of Brandi.

In the realm of Hollywood, where artistic license is the rule and studios need to recoup the millions of dollars they sink into films, it’s not uncommon for white actors to be cast in ethnic roles or for real-life stories to be “whitewashed” to make them more mainstream.

“That movie Mena is in might not have gotten made if she wasn’t in it,” said David Vaccari, a New York-based casting director, who casts for films, television, commercials and theater. {snip}

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Nia Hill, a black producer working in Hollywood, says the casting of Suvari in “Stuck” is indicative not just of the current state of racism in Hollywood, but reaches back to the very beginnings of the industry. “Unfortunately, the idea that roles that were specifically created for women of color have consistently been offered to white actors, spans at least a century back.”

“Stuck” is only the latest example. Last year, there was “A Mighty Heart,” in which Angelina Jolie, a white actress, played writer Mariane Pearl, who is Afro-Cuban and Dutch and grew up in France. Pearl reportedly wanted Jolie to play her, because she trusted her. But the black blogosphere lit up when the first pictures of Jolie, in a corkscrew wig and tinted makeup, first appeared.

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Michael Rechtshaffen, a film critic and feature writer for The Hollywood Reporter, believes the reason is financial. “It’s a difficult subject matter. It’s going to be a challenge to get people in the theater, so you want to put your best foot forward,” he said.

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Similarly, Vaccari believes the film “21,” which came out this spring, would have had little chance of being made if it had stayed true to the story it was based on from the book, “Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to their Knees,” by Ben Mezrich.

The real whiz kid and his partners in crime are Asian American. The filmmakers made them white, with the exception of one Asian, and cast Jim Sturgess, a Brit, as the leader.

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Still, he believes if the film is based in fact, producers should “always try first to go for the real deal and really make an effort to find an actor who is most representative of the actual person.”

Rechtshaffen wonders if the producers of “Stuck” actually decided against casting a black woman and changed a lot of the facts of the case because they didn’t want it to be offensive to blacks.

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Vaccari believes the real issue is not what color or ethnicity actors are, but how bankable are they. “It’s hard for all actors, everyone wants more parts,” he said. “At the top, there’s a level of actor who can do whatever they want. If Will Smith wanted to do that part in ‘21,’ he probably could have done it. Will Smith can play a white guy. That’s the reality of the business.”

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