John Oliver Slams Hollywood’s Whitewashing Practices

Sunday night’s episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” took aim at Hollywood’s whitewashing epidemic — one week before the 88th Academy Awards.

The scathing, four-minute segment — titled “How Is This Still a Thing?” — highlighted a disturbing practice as old as the industry itself: casting white actors to play non-white characters. While this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which came to light when the Academy nominated only white actors in the four acting categories for the second year in a row, focused on the lack of recognition and the lack of opportunities for people of color, the “Last Week” segment suggests that the roles are out there, they’re just played by white actors.

“That’s right — Jake Gyllenhaal, a white American with a Swedish last name, was cast to play the ‘Prince of Persia’ from, you know, Persia,” said a voiceover. “And he’s far from alone. Just last year, Emma Stone played the half-Asian Allison Ng in ‘Aloha.’ Apparently, ‘aloha’ means ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ and ‘you’ve got to be f—ing kidding me.'”

Other examples included “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Gods of Egypt.” British actor Christian Bale and Australian thesp Joel Edgerton playing Moses and Ramses, respectively, in “Exodus.” In response to the whitewashing backlash in “Exodus,” the video cites a Variety cover story with director Ridley Scott, who implied that Hollywood studios don’t back big-budget tentpoles toplined by non-A-listers.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

However, the practice is nothing new, says “Last Week Tonight,” citing Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany,” which the New York Times dubbed “broadly exotic” in 1961. Natalie Wood also played Maria in “West Side Story” (1961) and John Wayne took on Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” (1956).

“And maybe all of this would be less egregious if every time an actor of color took on a traditionally ‘white’ role, half the country didn’t go apes—,” the segment says, spotlighting the public outcry following Amandla Stenberg’s casting as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” Quvenzhané Wallis’ titular role in “Annie,” Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four,” John Boyega’s stormtrooper Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the mere possibility of Idris Elba playing James Bond.

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  1. Sandra says:

    why are you not logging my posts? Every time I want to reply to another post on here you block it, so much for freedom of speech.

  2. Moshe says:

    Let us talk about other than white persons (OTW) appropriating white culture.

  3. Maggie Bolitho says:

    Congratulations to personalities like John Oliver for spotlighting this particular issue. Having said this, I just wanna ask: why is there such a huge problem about whitewashing? It reeks of political agenda ! As a film buff, when I go to the movies I don’t really care whether or not a role is being played by a black/Asian/Hispanic/caucasian person. I’m there for the fun, the fantasy, the message contained in the story. I delight at the special effects, the props, the humour, the calibre of acting. I am there to have a good time. I don’t care whether Will Smith is the lead actor or Leonardo Di Caprio is as long as the story is being told in a way that I can relate to and it causes me to laugh/cry/think ! Film ought to be politics-free; it should liberate the movie-goer from the realities of life for that short moment. So when we begin to debate the “he/she should’ve been white/black/other” issue, it just completely takes away from the magic and wonder of the storytelling. Don’t do this to film, people. It’s like the moral ruination of an innocent.

  4. Janet Lorraine Hughes, MLISLos Angeles, California says:

    And Bert Lahr played a lion in The Wizard of Oz. Shocking!

  5. savvysearch says:

    Another problem is that this whole discussion is centered around black actors. A token black guy is seen as an umbrella race for diversity. That’s not enough. You want to see black characters in films AND Asian, Hispanic etc. characters as well. Something that represents the world we actually live in. And substantial roles, not tokenism.

  6. T'omm J'Onzz says:

    regarding the Oscars, actresses criticizing the #OscarsSoWhite thing seems highly hypocritical. i mean, actresses have their own separate categories/awards for all roles. why shouldn’t they just be Best Thespian, Best Supporting Thespian, Best Thespian In A… ? is being a supporting actor/thespian in a comedy different and special when you’ve got lady parts?

  7. T'omm J'Onzz says:

    i think you mean Kerry Washington as Alicia Masters in ‘Fantastic Four’; white dude Chris Evans played Johnny Storm/Human Torch. you could also mention Idris Elba cast as Heimdall in ‘Thor’.

  8. cadavra says:

    And yet over on another thread, someone complained that Perry White in SUPERMAN V. BATMAN is played by Laurence Fishburne.

    You. Can’t. Win. Ever.

  9. Tom Zeiser says:

    It is about time that someone actually spoke the TRUTH!!!!!! I am soooo sick and tired of everyone being so afraid of it!!!! The Network CUE CARD people just read what they are paid to….how do these people sleep at night?? I KNOW…THE GIANT SIZE PAYCHECKS they get for being ROBOTS……..Never had any respect for them anyway……THANK YOU JOHN OLIVER………..

  10. Alex says:

    Well, to be fair, that point about “Exodus” is true. Unfortunately, there are no A-list Middle Eastern actors in the United States, and thus that movie is not going to be financed if the people of the correct ethnicity are cast in the lead roles.

    When people whine about non-white actors being cast in “white” roles, like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four, and Star Wars, though, that’s just simply ridiculous. They are fictional and can thus be changed.

    • Iván el Terrible says:

      If a character is described as white, it should be white in the adaptation. But I don’t complain if it’s a new character.
      Johnny Storm is white, not black. Finn is a new character so it’s OK they wanted to make him black.

      It’s what Stan Lee said

  11. Nanny Mo says:

    For Shame! Only a racist, sees race over talent and marketability. It reminds me of Hitler turning his nose up at our Jewish brothers and sisters, only because he didn’t like their physicality. Can’t the Academy see this is the same thing?

  12. YeOle Gamerz says:

    John is funny but he is part of the problem. Step down John and let a female person of color have your job.

  13. Senor Blanco says:

    Let John Oliver set the example. He should give his job up to a person of color. Preferably a female. That will show them! Good show! Jolly Good show!

    • Why would black actors be more appropriate for some of the films mentioned? The ancient Persians were an Indo-European people and thus fair. And the Egyptians, though not Indo-European, were not black, at least as far as we can tell from most sculpture and above all their language, which is most closely related to Semitic–also not an African people. Of course, racializing anything sells today, and John Oliver knows that. He knows how to appeal to a base instinct in people, and makes a fortune doing it.

      • Sandra says:

        You certainly need a history lesson with your “Egyptians were not black” there is plenty of evidence to show they were you only have to do your research, I guess that’s like too much like hard work for you people.

        Egyptians were black get over it. People tend to think that the way the Egyptian look now is the way they looked in the past even the Egyptian themselves will tell you is not the case

        The anti-blackness is real in the way you try and make excuses for the whitewashing of this movie, when it clearly should not have been made with all the white actors. Just to make it clearly the Egyptian banned this movies stating it was misrepresentation of what Egyptians LOOK LIKE.

    • grab those ankles says:

      Good boy, John. You’ve passed the PC litmus test by bashing white people. We will ignore (until next week’s controversy) that you haven’t given up your job to a gay person of color. Keep conforming.

  14. Timmeh says:

    In the Hunger Games, Rue was written as being black. Racist readers skipped her description and assumed she was white.

  15. Corey says:

    As a white person, I find white people incredibly boring. Not only is Hollywood racist and blatantly white-washing, it’s just uncreative and boring. The most interesting shows and movies are ones where they’ve made an effort to tell some stories we haven’t heard before. There’s a wealth of those stories among minorities. Let’s tell their stories already? And cast interesting minority actors to play them. That will be the movies and TV shows I will watch.

    • taffy says:

      The movie business is a business. As such, the bigger a movie’s budget, the bigger the names they need to have it hopefully make a profit. If they keep the budget’s small (like Screen Gems does with their 90s style black thrillers like The Perfect Guy), they can make a nice little profit. But if the movie is expensive, there simply aren’t that many non-white big names they can go to. Certainly no big names they could cast in movies like Gods of Egypt.

      • Bingo says:

        Why you continue to believe Gods of Egypt is a historical movie, which part of the movie trailers made you believe this?? I see a dumb lighthearted movie with monsters and transformers. It doesn’t seem historical, they don’t sell it like historical… and it’s so going to flop, but i can’t take serioulsy any of these comments.
        When i see people use this particular movie i keep wondering on the level of intelligence of some people.
        Also NO! Will Smith shouldn’t play the Egyptian…an Egyptian should play the Egyptian.

      • Timmeh says:

        LOL. You honestly think that there are any “big” named actors in Gods of Egypt? All of the actors are B or C list. When is the last time Gerard Butler had a hit film of his own? Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson are both biracial and are bigger stars than any of the actors in Gods of Egypt.

        Ridley Scott could have cast Will Smith as Pharaoh Ramses or Moses. Even with Christian Bale as Moses, Of Gods and Kings flopped hard. Seriously, Joel Edgerton is a fine actor but he certainly is not well known actor.

        None of the white actors look anything like the people who resided in North Africa 4,000 years ago. Look at the paintings the Egyptians left. They were brown and black skinned.

  16. taffy says:

    So when is this white guy going to give his job up to a non-white person?

    • orionsaint says:

      I didn’t know a talkshow host was a certain race. Because this is about white people playing roles that are supposed to be non-white characters. White actor cast as a Cuban for example. So John Oliver should give his job to a non-white why again?

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