By Kayla McLaughlin-Ahern
As a self-proclaimed movie buff (and movie theatre popcorn addict), every weekend, and even more often throughout the summer, I sit myself down in a plush theatre seat and feast upon the newest releases. As a result of this, I often find myself taking note of certain Hollywood trends.
Something I have noticed throughout the years is a blatant lack of minorities in feature films. Yes, there are often background characters representing different races and occasional releases featuring predominately black casts (two that come to mind are Think Like a Man and The Perfect Guy), but seeing a lead character of color is generally a rare occurrence.
In 2013, a mere 17 percent of lead actors in Hollywood films were racial minorities. This statistic comes from the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, an annual report provided by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. While this number has seen a slight increase in recent years, a meager change from eleven percent in 2010, in a country where minorities account for almost forty percent of the population it is still a unnerving percentage.
This uneven representation does not stem solely from simple discrimination. A major issue in Hollywood is that many lead roles given to white actors are actually written as characters of color. This replacement of races in film is an act known as whitewashing. Ever since the dawn of the American film industry, directors have been habitually selecting Caucasian actors and actresses over those who accurately represent characters both racially and ethnically. For example, in the 1954 film Apache, rather than casting a Native American actor for the lead role of Massai, an Apache warrior, a blue-eyed Caucasian male was selected. He was subsequently given a dark tan to better fit the character description.
It is easy to believe that in the 1950s, when racism was running even more rampant and desegregation was at its beginning, that Hollywood would be less open to the idea of minority actors. One would like to think that this habit trickled off and became just another section in our history textbooks, but sadly, that is not the case.
In fact, a prominent example of whitewashing took place during the recent production of one of today’s most well-known film series, “The Hunger Games”. This trilogy is based off of three novels written by Suzanne Collins. Within the pages of these film-inspiring books, Katniss Everdeen, the narrator and main protagonist, is illustrated as a non-white character with dark, olive skin. Jennifer Lawrence, the white actress cast as Katniss, clearly does not fit these descriptors. Wome might say that Lawrence was chosen for her abilities, but that is simply untrue.
According to a Wall Street Journal article detailing the casting process for the films, the criterion for this role included the following: the actor must be Caucasian.
The recently released film, “Pan”, contains another example of modern day whitewashing. In this refreshed version of “Peter Pan”, the role of the Native American princess, Tiger Lily, is played by Rooney Mara (a white actress). Rather than showcasing a native actress for this iconic character, the director stuck to the age-old habit of casting a Caucasian over a person of color.
I know I’m not the only student on campus who spends their free time at the movies. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of college-aged students who identify as frequent moviegoers is approximately 20 percent. Even those who don’t go to theatres often view feature films through DVD rentals and online streaming programs. As consumers of Hollywood films and inherent investors in the industry, it is important to be knowledgeable about the discrimination that continues to take place during movie production.
Films cast using whitewashing techniques are extremely prevalent in theatres and online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. KU campus events, like the McFarland Student Union movie series, often host viewings of these films as well. For example, screenings of “The Hunger Games” trilogy, as discussed earlier, are extremely popular movie events on campus. It is crucial to be aware of the discriminatory habits ingrained in the American film industry funded by our wallets.
There are already forces working to take down discriminatory practices in Hollywood, and petitions are often created for the recasting of whitewashed characters. It is our job, as consumers of film, to hold directors and producers accountable for their discriminatory practices.