Several weeks ago, Marvel Studios and Sony cast 19-year old British actor Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Sony is desperately hoping that Holland will rejuvenate the ailing franchise, whose most recent entries disappointed at the box office and with critics. Tom Holland is a very talented young actor, but it is worth noting he owes his entire short career to the fact that he is white. A closer look at two of his biggest roles exposes contemporary problems with race in Hollywood.
The film for which Holland is best known is “the Impossible,” in which he starred as the son of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. The plot centered around the true story of a family vacationing in Indonesia separated during the 2004 tsunami, and their struggle to find each other in the devastation that followed. “The Impossible” is a moving and beautiful film. But as the credits roll, it reveals a major flaw. McGregor, Watts and Holland are (in case there be any doubt) white. But at the end of the film, we are shown a picture of the family the film’s story was based on – Filipinos, all brown.
The choice to cast white actors in roles that should have gone to actors of color (“whitewashing”) is a surprisingly common phenomenon in major Hollywood films. Recent examples include the all-white cast of Ridley Scott’s Egypt-based epic, “Exodus: Of Gods and Kings,” the choice of Emma Stone as a mixed race Chinese/Hawaiian in “Aloha,” and, a few years back, the casting of snow-white Jake Gyllenhaal as “the Prince of Persia.”
Whitewashing is not new. In the ’60s, pre-fame Bruce Lee was barred from starring in a show he created himself, “Kung Fu,” because the producers deemed him “too Chinese” to play the Chinese lead. White actor David Carradine (who, unlike Lee, knew no kung fu whatsoever) was cast instead.
While many defend the choice to cast white actors as people of color as “not a big deal,” whitewashing is really only a step removed from the now-taboo practice of blackface, the wildly offensive use of makeup to have a white actor play a black person. In decades past, white actors were cast in black, Asian and Native American roles – the result being such grotesque caricatures as Mammy and Fu Manchu.
The practice of blackface (and related ‘Yellowface,’ ‘redface,’ etc.) has an ugly history – it often damaged or crippled the careers of actors of color. Anna May Wong, a Chinese actress in early 20th century America, was one victim. She was required to play hyper-sexualised ‘dragon ladies’ who were endlessly either in peril from brown villains or being seduced by white men – white men who, though they might love her, could never kiss her onscreen, due to American laws banning interracial marriage. In one film, “the Good Earth,” Wong was originally cast as the female lead in a story about two Chinese peasants. However, when a white male lead was cast, the impossibility of an interracial relationship led to her being reduced to a minor role. (“The Good Earth” thus stars two white actors as Chinese peasants, with real Asian actors as background dressing.)
Life imitates art – Wong was reviled in her native China for portraying Chinese as weak and subservient. Meanwhile, Warner Oland, the white actor who depicted wise Chinese detective ‘Charlie Chan,’ was received by throngs of adoring fans when he visited Shanghai. ‘Yellowface’ hurt Asian careers, even as white actors profited from the discriminatory practice.
Even when they were actually allowed to play their own parts, the practice of limiting minority roles to crude stereotypes forced actors of color to humiliate themselves for a living. Lincoln Theodore Monro Andrew Perry (better known as ‘Stepin Fetchit’) was a black actor who was a favorite for playing cowardly, simpering and lazy black characters, endlessly cowtowing to white protagonists. While in the real world, he was a high-flying playboy (he was the first black actor to ever become a millionaire,) Perry’s onscreen roles prejudiced the already-racist white public against black Americans. Dozens of black actors who didn’t enjoy Perry’s enormous salaries underwent the same debasing treatment.
A related phenomenon to casting white actors in minority roles, and one which is very much still alive, is the ‘white savior’ character, the portrayal of a white hero ‘rescuing’ another ethnic group (often from a phenomenon which white racism or Western imperialism produced.) “Dances with Wolves,” “the Last Samurai,” and “the Help” are all famous examples. Here, people of color are relegated to supporting roles, even in stories about themselves.
Oddly enough, this preference for white leads explains one of pop culture’s most famous clichés – why does the black guy always die? The answer is simple: the black guy is rarely the main character. Black characters don’t always die because white filmmakers hate black people – they die because supporting characters are expendable, and black actors are typically cast in supporting roles.
Is Tom Holland responsible for the fact that he was offered a role in ‘the Impossible’ that should have gone to an actor of color? The answer is a qualified no – it’s hard to blame him, given that the decision was made by the producers and not himself, and his turning it down wouldn’t have resulted in it passing to a Filipino actor. But with the recent announcement of his casting as Spider-Man, questions of diversity in Hollywood are again being raised – and Holland, by coincidence, finds himself at the center of controversy again.
In 2011, Marvel Comics announced the creation of a mixed race black-Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales – passing the mantle of their most beloved hero to a person of color. Since then, they have created a female Thor, a black Captain America, a homosexual X-Man and a Muslim Ms. Marvel. The publishing company clearly understands that their readership is receptive to, and in fact desires, greater diversity in its popular entertainment. All of the aforementioned characters have been financial and critical hits.
Given Marvel’s promotion of Morales as the new Spider-Man, many had hoped that – in the third reboot of the series in less than fifteen years – Sony would cast a black actor as Spider-Man. (Community’s Donald Glover was a fan favorite.) But not only was a white actor cast, a memo leaked from Sony revealed that the company had strict guidelines regulating the Spider-Man character’s race and sexuality. While the comics company has realized diversity is a winning ticket, the film studio remains unconvinced about what it obviously views as a major risk – featuring a minority actor as the lead in an important franchise.
What explains the persistence of this preference for white leads which has helped young Tom Holland rise to fame with two roles that (arguably) should have gone to people of color?
As with the question “why does the black guy always die,” the answer is not explicit racism, but rather effective racism through the structure of major Hollywood productions. In his defence of an all-white cast for “Exodus,” Ridley Scott accurately argued that it is next to impossible to get funding together for a major Hollywood film without stars in the lead roles – and most stars are white. As Scott (insensitively) put it, he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so” and raise the tens of millions necessary to make a blockbuster. Many people outside of the film industry underestimate the immense difficulty of getting projects funded, and so give this answer short shrift.
But three objections to it are reasonable. Firstly – if you refuse to cast actors of color in major films, those actors will never become famous – and, consequently, they will not be eligible to star in major films. It’s a Catch-22 cycle that perpetually excludes them, even if unintentionally so.
Secondly – if you can’t get funding for your film about Egypt if you cast Egyptian actors, then DON’T make a film about Egypt!
Thirdly, it must be asked – is it true that a film can’t be successful with non-white actors in the lead? Or without stars? “Life of Pi,” for instance, was an award-winning box office success. Black actors like Will Smith and Denzel Washington are A-List and world famous. Studios complain that foreign audiences are racist, yet these films and stars perform well even abroad. In my view, this argument is the weakest of the three – the argument that actors of color can’t sell tickets. Clearly, they can.
I should stress that none of this reflects any ill-intent on the part of Tom Holland – he is a talented actor who worked hard to out-compete others for the roles he has gotten, and his success is deserved. I am not saying that he only got these roles because he is a white – but is a fact that he was only ELIGIBLE for the roles because he was white. As such, his casting in “the Impossible” and “Spider-Man” reflect some of Hollywood’s enduring problems with race.