Whitewashing in film isn't anything new. In 1921, Italian-American Rudolph Valentino played an Arab in The Sheik. Three years after that, Douglas Fairbanks did the same in The Thief of Baghdad. Most movies that changed a character's race are entirely fictional, and while the systemic racism on display in this practice is intensely problematic, it's not nearly as heinous or brazen as when it happens in movies based on real events.
Unfortunately, whitewashing isn't as simple as gut-reaction racism. Executives aren't making decisions like "Oh the woman was half black? That won't do. Let's cast Angelina Jolie." Rather, movies that whitewashed characters are part of a complex, systemic problem involving economics, history, and corporate practices that extend beyond the movie industry (don't forget, movie studios have parent companies). Whatever the reasons, the practice is distinctly American, and part of an industrial entertainment industry that has a long tradition of sanitizing, whitewashing, and desexualizing history and culture in an effort to offend no one, and thereby reap the largest possible profits.
Stuck tells the true story of Chante Mallard, who hit, and accidentally killed, Gregory Glen Biggs, a homeless man, with her car. Mallard hit Biggs so hard he lodged in her windshield, then drove home and left him there, where he died. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison, though the prosecutor asked for life (her defense attorney, Jeff Kearney, pleaded "What she did is horrible, but... she is not a horrible person. Please don't destroy another life. Please give her a chance to prove she can do something good.").
In real life, Mallard his African American. As court photos show, she wore her hair straight. In Stuck, Mallard is portrayed by Mena Suvari, a white woman of European heritage, including Greek and Estonian ancestry. The film changed the character's name to Brandi, so, technically, no one's race was changed, because Brandi is a fictional creation.
To add salt to the wound, Suvari has cornrows in the movie. So instead of casting an African American actor to play a black woman, producers cast a white woman with an ancient African hairstyle. Cool!
The Impossible chronicles the experience of Maria Belon and her family during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Belon is a physician and, since the tsunami, a motivational speaker. She, her husband Enrique, and her three sons were on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami hit. They are all Spanish.
Naomi Watts was cast as Maria, Ewan McGregor was cast as Enrique, and Tom Holland as their oldest son. Watts and Holland are English, McGregor Scottish. While some mentioned that this is a weird form of whitewashing within whitewashing (fair-skinned northern Europeans cast as swarthy southern Europeans), the true furor of whitewashing accusations arose from focusing on European tourists in a movie about a Southeast Asian disaster, in which hundreds of thousands of Asians perished.
Though the movie was well-reviewed, some commentators, such as Laura Helmuth of the Washington Post and Slate, really, really hated it. Like, every single thing about it, from the casting to marketing. The following is excerpted from Helmuth's tête-à-tête with Slate critic Danil Kois.
"Laura Helmuth: Reprehensible! ...[I]t's offensive in dozens of ways.
Kois: Dozens?! That's so many ways! Give me the biggest way it's offensive.
Helmuth: It's hard to get past No. 1, which was represented by the tagline in the trailer: 'Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit.' Because one thing that is more powerful than the human spirit is a motherf*cking tsunami that kills a quarter of a million people."
A Mighty Heart tells the story of Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl, who was decapitated on camera in a video uploaded online by Islamic extremists. Mariane is of mixed Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage, yet was played by Angelina Jolie, who darkened her skin, wore colored contact lenses, and corkscrewed her hair to look the part, all of which seems tantamount to donning blackface.
Jolie is of mixed German, Dutch, French-Canadian, and Slovak descent. So, the Dutch is right. Kind of missed the mark on the Afro-Cuban bit, though.
Good-Will-Hunting-meets-Rounders bro flick (apparently the writers were really into Matt Damon?) 21 tells to true story of MIT students who used their math acumen to count cards and hustle casinos. Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey were cast as the central pair students and their teacher, respectively, and are all white. Most of the real people on which the movie was based are Asian.
Sturgess, who is English, played a character based on Jeff Ma, who is east Asian, and plays a dealer in a bit part in the film. As Alvin Lin points out in MIT newspaper The Tech, the race and ethnicity of the people behind 21 was integral to their success.
“The MIT team thrived by choosing [Big Players] who fit the casino mold of the young, foolish, and wealthy. Primarily nonwhite, either Asian or Middle Eastern, these were the kids the casinos were accustomed to seeing bet a thousand bucks a hand. Like many on the team, Kevin Lewis was part Asian, and could pass as the child of a rich Chinese or Japanese executive … ‘… White 20-year-olds with $2 million bankrolls stand out,’ explains Andrew Tay, one of Lewis’ teammates.”