Hollywood on Alert: Actors’ Ethnicities Under Scrutiny Amid Heightened Sensitivities

Tatiana Siegel, Hollywood Reporter, June 12, 2015

When Warner Bros. set out to make a live-action Peter Pan, it wanted to avoid the racial insensitivities of J.M. Barrie’s play and Disney’s 1953 animated film, which infamously featured the song “What Made the Red Man Red?” So the filmmakers reimagined Tiger Lily not as Native American but as a character of no particular ethnicity to steer clear of Barrie’s portrayal of the island’s tribe, now considered rife with offensive stereotypes.

But choosing Rooney Mara–an actress of Irish, German and French-Canadian ancestry–to play Pan‘s Tiger Lily prompted an outcry, with 90,000 people signing a Care2 petition in protest. Now, as Pan heads for an Oct. 9 release, it enters a cultural landscape of increased racial sensitivities around film and television casting and a social media environment that amplifies those concerns. Warners, ironically, has been branded as insensitive for attempting to offer a color-blind, modern Pan.

“There’s a misconception about the ethnicity of the original character and we felt no obligation to perpetuate that misconception,” says an insider on the project. “We looked at Native American actresses. We looked at African-American actresses. We looked at African actresses. We looked at Middle Eastern actresses. White actresses. After a very exhaustive casting process, we ultimately went with the best actress for the part.”

Warners isn’t alone in fielding criticism over the casting of a racially specific role. Even before Sony released Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans blasted the film for “whitewashing” Hawaiian culture, and when it was discovered that Emma Stone plays a woman who is one-quarter Hawaiian with a half-Chinese father, the criticism grew louder. “Why couldn’t they find someone who’s part Asian, part Pacific Islander?” asks Guy Aoki, a co-founder of MANAA. “Cameron Crowe’s a guy who purports to love Hawaiian history and culture, but could you have cast at a worse level if you hated Hawaiian culture?”

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“If you’re going to wait around to find the perfect actress who is a quarter Asian, and not just a quarter Asian but a quarter Hawaiian Asian, you will never cast your movie,” says the producer. But that hasn’t stopped fans from trying to influence the process. Another Care2 petition has called upon Disney to cast Chinese actors in its new live-action remake of Mulan. Even films that cast in an ethnically accurate way can run into problems. Native American actors walked off the set of the Adam Sandler comedy The Ridiculous 6 in May over the movie’s portrayal of the culture. That prompted Netflix, which will release the film, to defend it as a “ridiculous” movie with “a diverse cast that is not only part of but in on the joke.”

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Still, some insist Hollywood is making a real effort to cast accurately. Another producer says there has been an uptick in sensitivities “given how prominent race issues are in the U.S.” On TV, hits like Empire and Fresh Off the Boat are showing that diversity attracts an audience. And NBC sidestepped controversy with its Peter Pan Live! by featuring an actress of Cherokee descent as Tiger Lily. But Warners could find with Pan that stepping around the issue only makes it worse.

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