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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Whitewashing of film stars reinforces, confirms bigotry

    Ridley Scott’s upcoming biblical film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” has been getting huge flack for the egregious lack of black people in its cast. For a story set in Egypt — which, by the way, is in Africa — the main star-studded cast is all white. And the roles for people of color in the film are either extras or criminals.

    Much of this white-washing has to do with stars. As Bill Mechanic, former chairman of 20th Century Fox, has noted, “‘A guy stranded on an island’ without Tom Hanks is not a movie. With another actor, [the movie ‘Cast Away’] would gross $40 million. With Tom Hanks it grossed $200 million. There’s no way to replace that kind of star power.”

    Considering less than 10 percent of people on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are people of color and how 74.1 percent of all speaking roles go to white actors, there’s a definite dearth of people of color in that category. Therefore, given how most movie stars are white and how movie stars are necessary to sell a motion picture, it’s unsurprising that whitewashing would happen in films such as “Exodus.” This was exactly the case with Johnny Depp’s infamous portrayal of Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.”

    There’s also the fact that the roles for which black actors are critically acclaimed, as commented by Kia Makarechi of  The Huffington Post, all have to do in some integral way with race. So that means with roles that are racially neutral, nine times out of 10 colorblind casting falls to white actors.

    Another aspect not helping the situation is the “racial empathy gap,” the sociological idea that white people inherently empathize less with black people. This has also been proven in a distressingly high number of scientific studies, thus giving notoriously risk-averse modern Hollywood even more motivation to lose black actors.

    But one could argue that the lack of major black parts in mainstream film also contributes to this empathy gap. Because, like it or not, media and the stories therein shape peoples’ view of the world more than anything other than their own personal experiences. And if there’s not room for people of color to shine in the lead of those stories, there’s little to change what is already implicit in the hearts and minds of the American people.

    So what should Hollywood do?

    Well, there needs to be more black movie stars, for one, not only in dramas but also in crowd-pleasing action and genre fare. And they’re needed not just in roles that are specifically about race either, but neutral roles, roles in archetypes that for too long have worn only a pallid mask. As an example, Idris Elba in “Thor” or “Pacific Rim” is about as good as it gets.

    Hollywood is a bloated money pit that is resistant to change, but maybe in lower-budget, high-production-value features, this idea could take hold, like “District 9” or “Killer Klowns From Outer Space.” Some of the best genre fiction comes from these semi-low budget affairs, and if filmmakers make the lead of their found-footage giant-insect horror movie black or Hispanic, then more power to ‘em.

    Also, if somebody could make more found-footage giant-insect horror movies, that’d be great.


    Tom Johnson is a film and television production junior. Follow him on Twitter.

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