13 POC Characters That Were Surprisingly Played By White Actors

Another day, another massive Twitter timeline of articles begrudging a beloved POC character (or real life person) being played by a white actor in the movie adaptation of their life/book/story. I wish this was infinitely less common instead of a typical Tuesday, but it’s become a pervasive, problematic, awful part of our culture that needs to be changed ASAP. The people that the story is about should get to be the people who tell the story, hands down, bar none, end of discussion. Unfortunately, the problem with the big movie studios and their prejudice against hiring these POC actors to play an appropriate role is systemwide and can’t easily be solved by them simply doing the right thing. On top of it all, even when POC actors are brought in to major motion picture films (that aren’t explicitly about whiteness), they’re often relegated to the sidelines and not featured. Sometimes they don’t even have names. POC actors have been getting the shit end of the stick for a little too long, don’t you think?

It’s exhausting to talk about or even think about, but it’s even more exhausting trying to explain that this is a real issue to fervent deniers that this problem exists in the first place. No matter how you slice it, big budget movies aren’t making as much money as they used to, so in order to make sure they’ll hit big for sure at the box office is to secure a big star to them. Being a Big Star means you have a long standing track record of being in big budget movies, being a good actor, and being recognizable enough to sell movie tickets by your face alone. White actors and actresses are often the Big Star because of the way the system works (Hollywood gives white stars the most exposure, therefore making them the most popular). It’s a whole chicken-and-the-egg situation.

How is any POC actor supposed to become a star if they aren’t given the opportunity to become one in the first place? I get not wanting to risk millions of dollars behind an ethical good, but if that’s the case, maybe don’t green light stories pertaining to a non-white community unless you can get the right team behind it. Furthermore, making excuses about it being about things like talent and personality, not race, is condescending. It’s like you’re saying there are no worthy POC actors at all and that white is aspirational.

Don’t believe this is an issue? Read on to see these 13 POC characters who were, for some reason, played by white actors and actresses… and then try to tell me we don’t have a problem.


Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson, who is neither Japanese nor a Japanese native, has been cast to play a part-cyborg public security squad leader in futuristic post-World War IV Japan. JAPAN, Y'ALL. This has been all over my social media feeds ,and there's no excuse other than a broken system, prejudice, and intentional erasure of Japanese people from this narrative. The studio even allegedly ran VFX tests to make her appear "more Asian" (brb, going to throw up in my mouth real quick). A lot of defenders of this casting are citing that, as part-cyborg, Major Kusanagi was given blue eyes and that somehow makes this casting okay. Yeah, no. A thousand times no.

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange

An Asian man is now being played by an Angl0-Scottish woman? Sure. Sounds real and awful enough to be true. Marvel has defended this casting choice by saying that it's an attempt to remove the Asian stereotype from this role and broaden what it means to be "The Ancient One," which is fair, in theory, but in practice only erases the strong cultural ties to Tibetan culture that this character inherently has. And honestly, why couldn't an Asian actor properly erase those stereotypes by being a more modern, updated version of The Ancient One? Does white equal modern and not stereotypical? Why are the people policing what is and isn't appropriate for a culture so frequently not of that culture?

Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in Prince of Perisa: Sands of Time

Famed video game character of Persian descent, Dastan is somehow played by Jake Gyllenhaal because of star power? Honestly, how is this still a thing? If I never see some white boy in eyeliner trying to be Middle Eastern again I'd be a very happy girl.

Jim Sturgess as Ben in 21

Based on an IRL card counting operation run by MIT students, a swift name change turned Jeff Ma into Ben Campbell. I'm making a big deal about Jim Sturgess' casting, but this whole movie contains white washing of a largely Asian-run operation. Because, lest we forget, even when they're real life enigmatic anti-heroes, that's not enough evidence to make a case for accurate POC casting: the studio system ultimately favors white actors.

Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha

Cast as a Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish peppy Air Force fighter pilot, this role wound up teaching Emma Stone about systemic white washing of POC characters. Initially defending his casting choice, the film's director, James Cameron, has since apologized for the cultural insensitivity. Apparently you can't just cast any white girl with almond shaped eyes to play any Asian or Pacific Islander you want.

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart

Angelina Jolie was cast to play Mariane Pearl, a woman who's husband, Danny Pearl, was kidnapped and later killed by Al'Qaeda. Mariane Pearl is of Jewish and Afro-Cuban descent. Angelina Jolie... isn't. Not even close. Pearl defended the casting of Angelia Jolie by saying that her spirit emulated what she wanted, but it didn't help that the makeup team darkened her skin for the role and gave her some brown contacts instead of finding an Afro-Latina actress *cough* Zoe Saldana *cough*.

Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragonball Z

Honestly, no amount of Elmer's glue you put in that boy's hair is going to make anyone forget that he's white and not an appropriate choice for an anime character. Just stop.

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan

Yup, the non-speaking animated Native American princess has been given lines and a new white face. In her defense, Rooney Mara has since advocated for diversity in film and feels incredibly guilty that she had to be on the pro-whitewashing side of things when this movie came out. Nevertheless, Rooney Mara was miscast in a role that should have been played by a Native American actress and that's not okay. At all.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Holy shit I can't watch this movie. Fitted with prosthetics to look more caricature-like and less like a human version of a Japanese landlord, Mickey Rooney's performance was also offensive as hell and what we in the industry like to call "f-cking awful." Between the cheeks, prosthetic buck teeth, exaggerated squinted eyes, and a lazy switching of L's and R's, this portrayal of Asian Americans is disturbing. Don't believe me? Here's a little sample of Mickey Rooney, an old white man, stomping around in a robe with a house plant and unable to find his front door without his glasses.

The cast of How I Met Your Mother in 'That Time CBS Thought Yellow Face Was Okay'

Marshall must learn the "slap of a thousand suns" in order to defeat Barney in a slap war and must seek the help of three masters who, as it turns out, are really just his three friends in yellow face. Yup. On national network television, three actors donned bad wigs, chopsticks in the hair, and a prosthetic fu man chu to play fake Asian characters. Television is seen as a more diverse haven for POC actors, but in this case, television got just as disappointing and upsetting as major motion pictures. Ugh.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra

Possibly the most prominent, famous figure in ancient Egypt was most famously played by a white woman. Cool. Her movie came out in arguably a less culturally sensitive time, but it doesn't help that when we look to mainstream media for Cleopatra's story, we come back with mostly white portrayals of ancient Egypt.

The Whole Principal Cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings

In a movie that takes place in ancient Egypt (you know, a country in AFRICA!), all of the principal cast of main characters is white beyond belief. Don't believe me? Here's the IMDB page and trailer. Rocking some awful fake-tan, the white principal cast is royalty (this is the story of Ramses and Moses) and served by - you gussed it - black and brown palace servants! Yes, you too, can be included in a movie about your very own culture, just as long as your skin color makes you default into servitude. I wish I was kidding, but just peep that IMDB page if you don't believe me. Disgusting and inexcusable.

Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

In unbelievably offensive red-face, Johnny Depp was cast to play a historic Native American character for some reason. Not only did the movie neglect to cast a Native actor, but they topped it off with some racist makeup job. Cool. Good work, everyone. HOW IS THIS A THING THAT WAS ALLOWED TO HAPPEN IN 2013?!

Which of these roles surprised you the most? What did I forget to include? Let me know in the comments.

You can follow the author, Aliee Chan, on Twitter.

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