Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
The Academy Awards’ gross under-recognition of performances by people of color, both in terms of nominations and wins, is pretty much universally acknowledged. Check this thorough list from Your Media Has Problems on tumblr if you had any doubts.
One of the interesting dimensions covered in that piece is that the majority of people of color nominated for Oscars played roles that “had” to be portrayed by a person of that race. This is a sad reflection on the limited roles available for actors of color.
But what’s even sadder is the fact that Hollywood has a long history of squeezing that limitation even further by casting white people as PoC characters. From Racebending.com‘s crucial “What is racebending?” primer:
The term “racebending” refers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of color. In the past, practices like blackface and yellowface were strategies used by Hollywood to deny jobs to actors of color… Because characters of color were played by white actors, people of color were hardly represented at all–and rarely in lead roles. While white actors were freely given jobs playing characters of color in make-up, actors of color struggled to find work.
(The term “racebending” is also used refer to the usually positive and exciting practice of casting a person of color in a role previously/traditionally played by a white person, but this article focuses on the sadly much more common dark side of racebending.)
I decided to take a look back at the acting nominations in the Academy Awards’ 86-year history to see how many examples of racebending were honored with nominations or awards. The results are unsurprising, yet still incredibly disappointing.
There are a few distinct forms of the bad kind of racebending. The most obvious and arguably most egregious is “black/brown/yellow/red-face,” where a white actor plays a person of color by wearing makeup.
Then there is the strange Hollywood treatment of all “vaguely ethnic” actors as interchangeably cast-able in any PoC role. In the past, this meant actors we’d now code white playing characters of color, e.g. George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story, but this lives on today with “brown is brown!” casting, e.g. Maori actor Cliff Curtis‘s globe-spanning character roster. There’s some overlap between this and the first category.
And then there is whitewashing, the insidious form racebending that erases the race or ethnicity of a character (often a real-life figure) to cast a white person in the role.
Each of these types of racebending are represented in Academy Award-nominated and -winning performances. My list below is most likely incomplete. Lists on Wikipedia and TV Tropes and articles by Michelle I. on Racebending and Tanya Ghahremani on Complex.com got me started. I then attempted to thoroughly review the complete lists of winners and nominees to find other instances. I am sure I missed some, particularly in the whitewashing category. If you can think of other examples, please share in the comments!
There are also “gray area” examples such as mixed-race Indian Brit Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi in heavy brown makeup, Siberian Russian Yul Brynner playing the King of Siam, and Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder, which was meant to parody this entire phenomenon, but, you know, was still a white actor in blackface receiving an Oscar nomination in 2008. I’ve left these examples in the list but with asterisks.
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:
Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:
Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with a white actor playing whitewashed PoC:
The very sad moral of the story is that Hollywood never “has to” cast a person of color. White supremacy in Hollywood finds a way.
This article was originally published at BtchFlcks.com, a website devoted to reviewing films and television through a feminist lens. Check out btchflcks.com for more articles on movies—good and bad—and the roles that women play in them.