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A Look Back at Racebending and the Academy Awards

February 18, 2014

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.

Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously

Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously

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.

Hugh Griffith's Oscar-winning brownface performance in Ben-Hur

Hugh Griffith’s Oscar-winning brownface performance in Ben-Hur

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.

Greek American George Chakiris as Puerto Rican Bernardo in West Side Story

Greek American George Chakiris as Puerto Rican Bernardo in West Side Story

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.

Jennifer Connelly's Oscar-winning portrayal of a whitewashed Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Jennifer Connelly’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a whitewashed Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind

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:

Luise Rainer's Oscar-winning yellowface performance in The Good Earth

Luise Rainer’s Oscar-winning yellowface performance in The Good Earth

  • 1937 Best Actress: Luise Rainer as O-Lan in The Good Earth
  • 1959 Best Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffith as Sheikh Ilderim in Ben-Hur
  • 1982 Best Supporting Actress: Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously
  • *1982 Best Actor: Ben Kingsley (light-skinned mixed race Indian in makeup) as Mohandas Gandhi in Ghandi

Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:

Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!

Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!

  • 1937 Best Supporting Actor: H.B. Warner as Chang in Lost Horizon
  • 1944 Best Supporting Actress: Aline MacMahon as Ling Tan’s Wife in Dragon Seed
  • 1952 Best Actor: Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata!
  • 1955 Best Actress: Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored Thing
  • 1959 Best Supporting Actress: Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane Johnson in Imitation of Life
  • 1965 Best Actor: Laurence Olivier as Othello in Othello
  • *2008 Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris (a white character in blackface, meant to parody this phenomenon, still offensive to many cultural commentators)

Oscar-winning race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:

Yul Brynner in The King and I

Yul Brynner in ‘The King and I’

  • *1956 Best Actor: Yul Brynner (Russian of Buryat/Mongolian descent) as King Mongkut (Thai) in The King and I
  • 1961 Best Supporting Actor: George Chakiris (Greek American) as Bernardo (Puerto Rican) in West Side Story

Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:

Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow

Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow

  • 1936 Best Supporting Actor: Akim Tamiroff (Armenian) as General Yang (Chinese) in The General Died at Dawn (also in yellowface makeup)
  • 1950 Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Chandler (American Jewish) as Cochise (Apache) in Broken Arrow (also in redface makeup)
  • 1962 Best Supporting Actor: Telly Savalas (Greek American) as Feto Gomez in Birdman of Alcatraz
  • 2003 Best Actor: Ben Kingsley (Half-Indian Brit) as Massoud Amir Behrani (Iranian) in House of Sand and Fog

Oscar-winning race-bent performances with a white actor playing whitewashed PoC:

Whitest Dude Alive runner-up William Hurt as South American prisoner Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman

William Hurt as South American prisoner Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman

  • 1984 Best Actor: William Hurt as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • 2001 Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind

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.

Categories: blog, Featured, History and Concepts
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About the Author

Robin Hitchcock is an American writer living in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a staff writer for Bitch Flicks, tweets @HitchDied and tumblrs at hitchdied.tumblr.com.

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  • SnapIntoASlimJim

    If Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Kirk Lazarus was meant as some sort of satire of whitewashing then it ended up being nothing but a failure. People look back at that performance as if it was incredible and I honestly believe is what has given whites in Hollywood license to bring back brownface, blackface and yellowface in modern movies. I see Tropic Thunder as a sick and covert way to get audiences into accepting the practice of blackface in order to bring it back again and they did. There was a brief period when yellowface was not being done in Hollywood
    but then was suddenly brought back with a vengeance in the disgusting
    Cloud Atlas with many non-Asians putting on yellowface. You can thank Tropic Thunder for that.

    When the Waynes Brothers did whiteface they were panned but when a white man did blackface like Downey Jr. did he was showered with praise. If people of color cannot see the inequality in that and they still support that piece of trash Tropic Thunder thinking that it helps their cause then they have a lot of education about white supremacy that they need to catch up on.

    • http://www.culturewarreporters.com/ CultureWarReporterEvan

      I think it’s worth comparing and contrasting “White Girls” and “Tropic Thunder” a little bit. One is easily the smarter, better movie, so saying that one was trashed and the other praised doesn’t have that much to do with the shade of the makeup used.

      I’m by no means a proponent of yellowface, blackface, et cetera [Johnny Depp as Tonto particularly upset me], but it is worth noting, as Robin did in her article, that it was meant to parody the much-maligned phenomenon. Whether or not this was successful [and some argue that it was], assuming that it kickstarted more of it happening is bit of a reach, I think.

      Yes, “Cloud Atlas” gave us the horrifying and gutwrenching imagery of Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving in yellowface, but as far as race they really went in every direction with every actor. It was a film created far too early, if only because I like to think [and hope] that in the future we have so much representation and diversity that no one would blink at what they did.

      Again, I’m not for racebending of any sort, and I want Hollywood to make the effort to find talent of the appropriate race or ethnicity. I’m just playing devil’s advocate for a few films that I don’t believe necessarily deserve to be lumped alongside Laurence Olivier’s “Othello”.

  • taranaich

    I have to say, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the placement of Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi as “race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:” even in the “gray area” bit: he was, after all, born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, whose father was a Gujarati Indian called Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji. To call him a “white actor playing a PoC” is wide of the mark. It’s true he had makeup done to more closely resemble the historical figure, but brownface, as I understand it, is when makeup is applied to make someone of one ethnicity resemble another. Since Kingsley is already half Indian, the makeup just seems gratuitous, as opposed to trying to pass off – for example – an Englishman of Germanic ancestry as an Indian.

    I defer to your judgement, but I think it’s only the use of makeup which makes Kingsley’s casting questionable, in comparison to someone like Marlon Brando being made up to look like they’re explicitly another ethnicity. In any case, I don’t think you can call Ben Kingsley a “white person” any more than you can call him a full Indian.

  • Venom

    One you forgot is Naomi Watts in The Impossible