BBC World Update’s Dan Damon interviewed Racebending.com spokesperson Michael Le on the May 28th, 2010 edition of the BBC World Update! BBC World Service is arguably the most widely recognized international news radio broadcasters in the entire world. Listeners of the World Update get a weekday briefing on the stories that are making the news, focusing on business and technology trends. BBC World Update is broadcast in the UK, on over 200 FM stations across the United States, and also on stations in East Africa and the Middle East. According to BBC World Service, the “World Update brings you the stories and people that are setting the agenda around the world.”
Racebending.com supporter Jeremy Porath transcribed the interview with Mike, which you can read below!
BBC WORLD UPDATE: Whether it’s Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or John Wayne as Genghis Khan in 1956, Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors as Asian characters. You might think the world has moved on since then, but apparently not. The new adaptation of the cartoon series Avatar: the Last Airbender has a white actor playing a lead character that is obviously meant to be Asian.
- [Sound clip from The Last Airbender trailer]
Movie-Katara: You are the only one who can control all the elements… and bring peace to our world.
Movie-Aang: I will stop them!
Movie-Dragon: You may already be too late.
BBC WORLD UPDATE: Clip from The Last Airbender. Well this phenomenon has a name: "white-washing". Michael Le, from the website Racebending.com, campaigns against white actors playing other ethnic groups. May I ask you, what do you think goes through the minds of Hollywood producers when they decide to cast white actors in those roles?
MICHAEL LE: Well, it’s hard for me to interpret the intentions of Hollywood–those kinds of decisions happen behind closed doors. What I can say is that a lot of the supporters of the film have said that this is a business decision, and the perception is that Caucasian actors are more marketable than other actors.
BBC WORLD UPDATE: But the United States is a society made up of people of diverse backgrounds, colors, and identities, so, so why?
MICHAEL LE: Honestly, I think it goes back to the history. Hollywood’s been making movies since 1912, a time long before the end of segregation. They’re very used to hiring Caucasian actors for lead roles. This is what they’ve been doing for about a hundred years now. And for them to change that… it’s very difficult for them. There’s a lot of money passing hands. And they feel comfortable with casting Caucasians. They also feel comfortable with casting male leads in film, which is actually counterproductive to them reaching to their most successful audience. More women purchase movie tickets than men in the United States. Which is not reflected in their film-making decisions. Paramount, for example, about 77% of its film leads are male, from 2000 to 2010. And this doesn’t represent what the modern demographic is in movie-goers, it doesn’t represent their modern audience, their modern, 21st-century audience.
BBC WORLD UPDATE: Is it something to do with Asian casting, because you can think of some successful black-American actors, can’t you? Will Smith, Denzel Washington, I mean there’s a, there’s a longer list. Is there something that’s more difficult in casting Asians?
MICHAEL LE: I think that’s really kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. Because, clearly with films like 21, with films like The Last Airbender, with Dragonball: Evolution, you have roles that are steeped in Asian culture, that are often based on real-life Asian-Americans, that are not given to Asian actors. So when they’re denied the opportunity to prove themselves, even in roles that are basically created for them, then there’s no opportunity for a break-out Asian star. That being said, I think that in the next five or ten years, I think we’ll have a huge, Asian-American superstar.
"You have roles that are steeped in Asian culture, that are often based on real-life Asian-Americans, that are not given to Asian actors. So when they’re denied the opportunity to prove themselves, even in roles that are basically created for them, then there’s no opportunity for a break-out Asian star."
MICHAEL LE: And that’s coming, because that’s the way that television is going, that’s the way that new media is going. Hollywood is kind of lagging behind. But if you look at American programs like Lost, like Community, like Glee, then you see that diverse casts are something that audiences respond to. With reality television, with America’s Best Dance Crew, one of the most famous groups that emerged from that was JabbaWockeeZ, an Asian-American dance group. And the same can be said for YouTube, where the number one star right now is Ryan Higa, a Japanese-American. And, unfortunately it’s taken Hollywood executives a little bit longer to catch on.
BBC WORLD UPDATE: I would say–and, and I’ve got no scientific basis for this–but I would say that British film makers, for example, and probably other European film makers, have made a bit more progress here. Because in the old days, when the British made films about… India, for example, they, they would quite often cast white stars, and give them make-up. Now they wouldn’t dream of, of doing that. Do, do you think I might be right?
MICHAEL LE: It’s hard for me to judge, since I don’t actually absorb that much European programming, but I’ve been surprised by how much diversity I find in programming abroad. Definitely when compared with the United States. For a nation that prides itself on being very diverse, on being a sort of "melting pot", it’s not always reflected in our entertainment programming. And so, I think that’s something we’ll definitely catch up with other parts of the world, like Britain and so forth.
BBC WORLD UPDATE: Michael Le, from the website Racebending.com. I’ll certainly cop to that one as a discussion point, you’ll have wider experience than me of the way Hollywood operates, and its casts, for ethnic roles. You’re listening to World Update. This is the BBC in London.