Hollywood Whitewashing, from John Wayne to Last Airbender

Hollywood's still trying to make blockbuster films by wedging white leads into characters conceived as people of color.

By Hatty Lee Jul 17, 2010

Another Hollywood movie is guilty of whitewashing. Avatar: The Last Airbender was released July 1, with white actors playing the roles of Asians. The popular cartoon series, which has been running since 2005 and has a fairly large following, is set in a fantasy Asian world. The heroes on the TV show reflect Asian and Inuit traditions in their actions, clothing and features. And some of the voice actors behind the animated series are Asian American as well.

Unfortunately, in the Hollywood movie version, the main heroes are played by white actors. The exception being the antagonist which was cast with Dev Patel, replacing a white actor who had to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts. It’s even more disappointing since the director is a man of color, M. Night Shymalan.

Fans of the series have created an action website advocating for non-discriminatory casting practicing and boycotting of productions that don’t comply. At the premier of The Last Airbender, they organized a protest in Hollywood.

But this is definitely not the first, nor will it be the last movie guilty of ethnic miscasting. Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors to play ethnic characters in blockbuster movies. The more famous the actor, the better. Back in 1956, John Wayne was cast as Mongolian chief Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). And now, 54 years later, there is talk that Mickey Rourke may claim the role for an upcoming film by John Millus. There was Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) where he played a stereotyped Japanese character. And there is talk of Angelina Jolie being cast as Cleopatra in an upcoming movie by Scott Rudin. A role that was played by Elizabeth Taylor back in 1963.

Here is a roundup of whitewashed Hollywood-produced (attempts at) blockbuster films: