Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi, the Sufi mystic and popular 13th century Persian poet better known as Rumi, is going to become a Hollywood superstar. Great; we’re getting diversity in storytelling, right? It would appear that it’s only a mirage. Despite the film focusing on a popular Middle Eastern historical figure, and despite screenwriter David Franzoni stating that he’s working on a script that will “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar,” Franzoni still gave the suggestion that a white actor would play Rumi, such as Leonardo DiCaprio. Franzoni also suggested that someone like Robert Downey, Jr. would be great to play Shams of Tabriz, who was Rumi’s spiritual teacher.
To be fair, producer Stephen Joel Brown said that it’s too early to discuss casting, saying that the star caliber of a DiCaprio and Downey is what they’re looking for in their prospective leads. But the mere suggestion of DiCaprio and Downey, white actors, and conflating that with star power seems to suggest that once again, Hollywood has the potential to go the whitewashing route. That fear and anger resulted in the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.
However, despite the backlash, there was another point of view voiced on Twitter. One thread in particular suggested that even though some Americans might be up in arms about the Rumi film, people overseas in Turkey, where Rumi was buried, wouldn’t be offended by DiCaprio playing Rumi; instead, they’d see it as a compliment that Hollywood wanted to give Rumi the Hollywood star treatment. However, the Afghan government is now aware of the film and are monitoring its development. Haoon Hakimi, the spokesperon for the country’s ministry of Information and Culture, told DW.com that the government is “still collecting informatoin on this issue” and that “[a]s soon as we have something, the ministry will share its views with the film makers.”
I wanted to see what potential audience members felt about this movie. So for this online roundtable (via email and Twitter direct message), we have Twitter user Mihrimah Irena, poetry writer, freelance editor and blogger Rana Tahir (rana-tahir.com), film and media critic, filmmaker, speaker and consultant Imran Siddiquee (imransiddiquee.com), music festival organizer and co-founder of global arts and culture collaborative network #CultureFix Nora Rahimian, and writer and Citrine Magazine founder/editor Evadney Petgrave.
JUST ADD COLOR: What were your immediate reactions to the news that Rumi could be played by Leonardo DiCaprio?
Mihrimah Irena : My immediate reaction was, pardon the French, WTF. literally. I was and am furious.
Rana Tahir: Honestly, I just had to roll my eyes. I love DiCaprio, I’ve been a fan since Titanic (screw everyone, that movie is a masterpiece), and I’m a fan of Rumi too. I’m not blaming either of them for this (well, I can’t blame Rumi, he’s been dead for a long time). I sincerely hope Leo turns this down. If not for us, then at least for himself: You can get other roles, Leo! Don’t taint yourself with racism!
Imran Siddiquee: I was actually surprised by how surprised I was at the news, only because you would think at this point we’d all be accustomed to such ridiculousness from Hollywood (since there have been way too many examples of this kind of whitewashing in the past year alone). But honestly, I feel like it only becomes more ridiculous the more it happens, because at some point you’re like – wait, are people really not paying attention at all? (They really aren’t).
Nora Rahimian: I was so excited for a Rumi film, in part because I was excited to see a representation of my culture that celebrated some of the parts of us I love the most: celebrations of poetry and love and beauty. That they want Leo to play the role is a symbol of the deeper whitewashing that inevitably will happen—that they’ll do—to Rumi’s story. It felt like an erasure of my people, of a denial of our cultural legacy.
Evadney Petgrave: Mainstream Hollywood’s nonsense has been getting so much attention since April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite was created, so I wasn’t too surprised when this announcement was made. Sadly, people of color are always on alert for how white people are going to try us next- this was just another one of those times. I feel like they just won’t ever get it, which is why I’m advocating for hitting them where it hurts – their pockets.
The director claims to want to affect people’s perceptions of the Middle East. What do you think of the irony that he’d choose non-Middle Eastern actors? In other words, would casting a non-Middle Eastern actor prevent the film from achieving what it aspires to?
Irena: The Middle East is rife with people of ALL skin colors – there are red haired Palestinians, blue eyed Lebanese, the list goes on. But to me, it’s the issue that he picked someone who is clearly European, who does not originate from that place and therefore doesn’t understand our history or our issues or our heritage… that to me is an issue. Look at Kingdom of Heaven– casting was right for that film and audiences in the Middle East greatly appreciated the portrayal of Saladdin by a middle eastern actor. I think the casting will cause and causes such an issue it will prevent the aspiration of this film.
Tahir: First of all, I think his premise is wrong. Making a movie about Rumi is probably not going to affect how people see the Middle East. Rumi was co-opted by white poets since Robert Bly introduced his poetry to the US in the 70’s. Often, Rumi’s poetry is divorced from his life, and more specifically, his faith. Rumi’s been whitewashed long before the idea of this movie, so to [white people] he might as well be European now.
Also, ancient depictions of the Middle East aren’t necessarily at issue when we talk about representation. Yes, it would be cool if the world knew a little more about how much Middle Eastern and Muslim societies have contributed to the world, but it’s more about the modern day representation. Highly developed games like “Call of Duty” can’t even bother to get the language right (Pakistanis speak Urdu, not Arabic!), and after all these years people still don’t get that turbans are usually worn by Sikhs not Muslims. If the director wants to help: recruit us to tell our stories as they are today, give us the platform! Want to help? Make a movie about the debacle that was Sykes-Picot. That shit has repercussions today, and he can even cast white people!
Siddiquee: I think casting a white man like DiCaprio to play this part actually would have an affect on people’s perceptions of the Middle East, in that it would further confirm/perpetuate an idea which white supremacy is always teaching us: that white men are more interesting than men of color. That white men are the heroes of history, and that people of color are only worth seeing as criminals and enemies of peace. This may not be what the creators overtly aspire to do, but I do get the sense that they aspire to make a film about Rumi for white people. That seems pretty clear to me given their comments – “He’s like Shakespeare” – and the fact that they reference Lawrence of Arabia as an inspiration. They have a particular audience in mind already and in that sense – which is a harmful, dismissive, and oppressive sense – casting Leonardo DiCaprio would help them achieve an unspoken goal.
But to your actual question, to make this casting decision would prevent the film from truly challenging stereotypes about Muslims or people from the Middle East.
Rahimian: Hollywood is very comfortable casting Middle Eastern actors as terrorists, villains, and monsters, but the fact that any positive portrayal of the region has to be done by a white actor is proof of how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our culture. The director can’t even imagine a “positive Middle East” with actual Middle Eastern people in. But what they can do is take a story that they find lucrative- Rumi is the best-selling poet in the US- and co-opt it for commercial gain. So the message is that the potential financial earnings are good enough for Hollywood, but the people, the cultural legacy, the history itself is not.
Petgrave: Almost everyone has heard or read a poem of Rumi’s, even if they don’t know his name. Yes, we do have to acknowledge people like Coleman Barks for anthologizing his work and helping bring it to the masses, but white-washing Rumi in a movie is a totally different animal. It just affirms that some white Americans think that something is not important unless they say it is. Writers, poets, and other people who love Rumi’s work would see the movie regardless of who is starring in it. In fact, this would be a Rumi movie that I will never support.
How do you think a whitewashed Rumi film would affect the fight for diversity in Hollywood?
Irena: The casting of a white actor for Rumi further exacerbates the issue of the CLEAR lack of diversity in Hollywood and shows that other people of color don’t matter and their stories and their struggles don’t matter.
Tahir: I think, and this may be the pessimist in me, that it won’t do much. There have been countless numbers of movies that were whitewashed. I mean look at what they are doing to Ghost in the Shell. Producers will continue to do this until there are real consequences. In order to have real consequences we need solidarity among a majority of moviegoers. This means that the burden (just demographically speaking) falls on white people. They are the majority of moviegoers in the U.S. according to the MPAA, and they are the ones Hollywood caters to more than anyone else. They’ve got to put their hat in the ring, so to speak.
The problem is white supremacy, the solution is white people. Ironic.
Rahimian: Rumi is one example in a long line stories that Hollywood has appropriated and whitewashed. What concerns me with this story in particular is that not much is actually known about Rumi’s life. So whatever Hollywood portrays will become fact for most people. They’re not just whitewashing history; they’re rewriting it.
Is it going to change Hollywood? No. But I think the backlash against Leo-as-Rumi reflects a shift where audiences are not just no longer accepting whitewashed films but also are demanding diversity in stories, characters, actors, and decision-makers.
Petgrave: There’s been a lot of people of all colors speaking out against this, so I think it will help to spread more light on Hollywood’s whitewashing. We are making our voices heard (and that is good), but we must do more than tweet and leave comments. Creating and sharing our own stories is the only way I believe we can have real diversity in Hollywood.
— Mihrimah_Irena (@Mihrimah_Irena) June 8, 2016
There’s a thread on Twitter about how some overseas wouldn’t see Leo-as-Rumi offensive because they might not see themselves as POC. What are your opinions on this?
Irena: I know from Pakistan and the Middle East there is a likeness and desire to have white skin and look lighter and look like those of European descent. But to me, I don’t agree with the opinion that people see themselves as white and stuff. The point is he doesn’t represent us, our heritage, our struggles, probably never even read Rumi or Hafez or any other poet from the Middle East when people from there read and learn it as soon as they are born.
Tahir: I understand this point [in the thread] all too well. I grew up in the Middle East, in Kuwait specifically. When I lived there, I didn’t really have a problem with brown face, mostly because I never had to think about it. Two of my favorite movies are Jinnah and The Message where Christopher Lee and Anthony Quinn play brown people. What did it matter if one white guy played an Arab or Desi, when I could switch the channel and watch tons of people in the media who looked like me, or go outside and see the majority of people looked like me? I had daily representation. PoC in places where they are underrepresented don’t have that, so of course they think about representation in different ways.
But ultimately this is a cop-out. A Pakistani-American has as much right to Jinnah as a Pakistani does. Those of Arab/Turkish descent in the U.S. have as much right to think about how Rumi is represented as Turkish people. The politics change in the so-called melting pot we live in. The director is American, and he’s making an American movie which he will probably market and sell in the U.S. primarily. Dude can shove it with his excuses.
Another aside on this: do you really think Turkish people won’t be happy if someone of Turkish descent (or even an actor from Turkey) plays Rumi in a major Hollywood picture? People abroad are always noting with pride when someone like Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachan, or even Omar Sharif breaks that barrier and gets into Hollywood. If the director is so concerned about people abroad, he could really give them something to root for by casting one of their own as Rumi.
Rahimian: Race is a social construct. Ethnicity is about culture, history, etc. Color really doesn’t have to do with either. But the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that many of our countries suffered have left behind these ideas that “white is better” and set up the U.S./the West as standards to be compared to. So to say that Leo-as-Rumi is an honor is a symbol of deeply embedded internalized racism and the on-going colonial mentality.
Petgrave: Fair enough [re: the thread’s opinion]. I certainly can’t tell people what they should be offended at, but there are plenty of Middle-Eastern people who do agree that the filmmakers already have the wrong idea. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to see someone who shares Rumi’s nationality, play Rumi. It’s elementary thinking. It’s not “an honor” to have your culture mimicked by whiteness and erased. There are plenty of Middle Eastern actors that can play this role and it’s a slap in the face to them to not even be able to be involved because they’re not white American. It’s more than being the same color.
America doesn’t have a great track record with proper Middle Eastern representation. What positive impact could an American-made film about Rumi (starring a Middle Eastern actor) have on America?
Irena: If Rumi starred a Middle Eastern, it would be a start towards better portrayal of middle easterners instead of having them as always terrorists. With a major film like this, it can catalyze having better portrayals of middle eastern and Muslims and thus work towards bridging the communities together and have better inclusiveness.
Tahir: I think, again, the issue is still about modern representation. Rumi is one of the top-selling poets in the U.S. right now, but misrepresentation about Islam and Middle Eastern people in general is rampant. A movie about Rumi done well, that incorporates his culture and faith properly, could have a good impact. It might make people think more about our contributions to the world over human history, but it does little to combat stereotypes today.
Rahimian: If done well, the film would add a counter-narrative to all the negative portrayals of Middle Easterners. It would be another representation of us. At its best, it would be an invitation for people to further explore parts of Middle Eastern culture, history, and poetry that they perhaps hadn’t thought about it before. But do I trust that this film is being created to challenge stereotypes or actually pay homage to Rumi and his culture? Not at all.
Petgrave: Rumi is well-known here. People who care about his work, will support it. People who care about accurate representation will support it. I’m not sure how the filmmakers plan to tell his story since so little is known about him, but if the film is of good quality, it will do well in the box office. Accurate representation in media will finally show us that America might just be starting to get “great.”
The writer & producer of a film about Rumi actually shared this idea out loud, in public, with a reporter. Like… pic.twitter.com/vFQxpZpL1Q
— Imran Siddiquee (@imransiddiquee) June 7, 2016
How do you hope Hollywood addresses the Rumi film controversy and prevent potential erasure?
Irena: I hope they address the controversy OPPOSITE of how they handled Gods of Egypt. Like at least say “Oh, we will cast this Middle Eastern person instead and apologize.”…My overall message is this—Hollywood’s casting has, since it’s very inception, is dismissive of POC and if they have POC, most of the time, they cast them for “diversity sake” or as a filler or to fulfill a negative stereotypes. Which is wrong considering the world we live in.
Tahir: I think the best thing it can do is make a lot of money and prove to filmmakers that movies featuring Middle Eastern actors as the protagonist can succeed in the market. I hope the director just realizes his mistake and casts a PoC. If not, I hope DiCaprio publicly turns this role down and uses his platform to talk about representation like he does climate change. If that doesn’t happen either, I hope people boycott and send a message with their dollar.
Siddiquee: I think it’s a plus that this call out happened now, rather than later, since the film hasn’t completed casting. Too often we find about these things after production has begun – or sometimes even when we’re sitting in the theatre watching a film (which is the worst). There’s really a simple solution for these men in power, if they’d like this conversation to go away: don’t cast Leo or Robert Downey Jr. in these roles. And then, make the effort to cast someone who isn’t white.
But, if I’m being completely honest? I’m not really confident, at this point, that people who would suggest Leo in the lead role are then going to be able to make a film about Rumi which truly works against the dominance of whiteness in Hollywood—regardless of who they ultimately cast. And so, if they haven’t already, I think the most significant thing they can do at this point is bring on a co-writer or director who is a person of color, and preferably someone from somewhere close to where Rumi was born. (I know this is a slim possibility, but one can dream).
Rahimian: Bring in Middle Eastern filmmakers, consultants, actors, directors… Let us tell our own story.
Petgrave: I hope they do the right thing and put profits aside and focus on telling and showing an accurate representation. I have no hopes that will actually happen.
Who would you cast as Rumi?
Irena: I would cast as Rumi Halit Ergenç who is a prominent Turkish Actor and who starred in a Turkish Show called Magnificent Century ( a show about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent) that is an international sensation. Or perhaps Remi Malik from [Mr.] Robot. Or Alexander Siddig.
Tahir: Mihrimah mentioned Alexander Siddig, I second that! I thought he was the perfect person to play Doran Martell on Game of Thrones, but then they gutted the Dorne storyline. Needless to say, I’m heartbroken. Turkey’s TV game has been amazing lately. Their shows are popular all over the [Middle East]. I would be interested in seeing Halit Ergenç from the show Harem Al-Sultan play Rumi. (Also, just to clarify, I know Rumi is Persian, I’m just using Turkey because that is where he is buried and where a lot of westerners go to learn about Rumi.)
Siddiquee: Someone like Shahab Hosseini, who just won Best Actor at Cannes, or two other men who’ve recently starred in Asghar Farhadi films, Peyman Moaadi and Ali Mosaffa, would be more than capable.
Rahimian: Honestly, couldn’t name names. But what something Imran tweeted earlier about the idea that Leo being the best possible person in the world to play this character is a symbol of white supremacy stands out. Even if the argument is, “But Leo and RDJ would draw box office crowds,” we only have to look at Bollywood and Nollywood to point out the market value of people of color in leading roles (made by and for people of color).
(And Rana, I love your point about the timeline of this film. There is a trope around the old or ancient Middle East as exotic that comes from an orientalist lens. I can easily see this film building off that, where the Middle East, and its people, would still be this exotic “other”. How does this challenge stereotypes? How does this touch on the continuity of history, of geopolitical nuances, etc? So it would completely be possible to make this film and devoid of all nuance and context.)
Petgrave: I’m not too keen on Persian and Middle-Eastern actors, but I have seen names thrown around like: Shahab Hosseini, who has won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year. The talent is out there.
Other articles to check out:
“The Hollywood bull enters Rumi’s china shop” | Aljazeera.com