Tag Archives: brownface

How come Disney doesn’t understand the difference between brownface and “blending in”?

(Photo credit: Disney, who needs to treat my boy Aladdin right.)

For the amount of times Disney’s live-action Aladdin has been in the news for the right (and hot) reasons, there’s just as many times the company has put its film in the limelight for highly controversial reasons. It seems like Disney still hasn’t gotten enough of being controversial with this film; they managed to find a way to inject brownface into the proceedings

According to Deadline, The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times both reported that the film had been tanning up white actors needed for background roles, stunt positions, “camel handlers” and dancers during filming at Longcross Studios near London. The Times went further by quoting Kaushal Odedra, an extra hired for filming, who said he saw at least 20 “very fair skinned” actors waiting in line at make-up tents “waiting to have their skin darkened.”

“Disney are sending out a message that your skin colour, your identity, your life experiences amount to nothing that can be powered on and washed off,” he told the newspaper (beware: you need an account to read the rest of the article on the Times’ website).

Disney has since put out a statement via a spokesperson that doesn’t help matters. If anything, it makes things worse.

“Great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen. Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.”

On the one hand, it’s bold for the company to not deny the fact that brownface was used. The fact that they didn’t shy away from it isn’t why I hate this statement. I hate the statement because it acts like brownface was a necessary evil for this movie, when in fact brownface can be avoided at all costs all the  time.

If Agrabah is being positioned as a multicultural place—according to Deadline, a reported 400 of 500 of the background actors and performers are Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Asian and Mediterranean, then why can’t the white dancers, animal handlers, stunt people, etc., just be left as they are? Why was it necessary that they “blend in” if there’s already a white person cast as part of the main cast of the movie? In 2017, Billy Magnussen was cast in a brand-new role made exclusively for this film. So why the need for brownface? Color me confused.

Disney, can you please just make this film without any further complications and scandals? I just want Aladdin and Jasmine, two of my favorite Disney prince and princess combos, to be presented right and with some dignity. Please. Thanks.

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What’s with Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Columbian drug lord Griselda Blanco?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have seen the high-budget trailer for Lifetime’s Griselda Blanco biopic, Cocaine Godmother. If not, here you go:

If you’re astute to representation issues, you probably know what I’m going to point out as the problem. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Welsh woman, is playing Blanco, a Colombian woman. Why is she, though?

There are plenty Latina actresses who could have played this role, and in fact, there is one who has been lobbying for this role for a very long time–Jennifer Lopez. Lopez has been jonesing to play Blanco for years, and has created a deal with HBO to bring her TV movie to life (as to when that movie is coming remains to be seen).

Surprisingly, it’s also not the first time Zeta-Jones has been tapped to play Blanco; she was initially supposed to play the Queen of Cocaine in a biopic called The Godmother. According to W Magazine, Zeta-Jones won the role over…Jennifer Lopez. According to a source to The Sunday Times in 2016, despite Lopez’s hard lobbying for the role, she didn’t win out because “she doesn’t have the acting quality to pull it off.”

Today, neither woman are in the role–it now belongs to Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). But both women are gunning to have the last word on Blanco’s life. Right now, we’re seeing Zeta-Jones’ vanity project in the lead.

This gets back to the main point of this article–why is a non-Latina actress playing a Latina figure? From where I’m sitting, it seems like another case of Hollywood (and maybe even Zeta-Jones herself) believing in casting white actors in non-white roles because they have an ethnic “look.” It’s another, subtler kind of whitewashing.

There’s a reason Zeta-Jones has been able to play Latina on more than one occasion–she played a Latina character in The Mask of Zorro opposite Antonio Banderas–and that’s because she’s a white woman who has ethnically-ambiguous looks. Casting-wise, Zeta-Jones fits the model Hollywood looks for when casting a stereotypical non-black “Latina” role; she’s, as Hollywood would describe her, “exotic” thanks to her olive skin and curvy features. But casting her also comes with the added bonus of whiteness, which adds “credibility,” and “name recognition” to the role. In this way, Zeta-Jones can play both sides, having her cake and eating it, too.

But in the stills and trailer for Cocaine Godmother, you can still see Zeta-Jones exaggerating her already ethnically-ambiguous features to the point where it starts becoming character makeup. Her naturally olive skin is bronzed even further to get it closer to Blanco’s, making her skin look like it has an unnatural tan. Her nose is somehow contoured and highlighted to look even more bulbous in an effort to match Blanco’s nose in real life. The overall look is meant to make her look less like a Welsh-English woman and more like a woman of color–the makeup treatment doesn’t want you to equate Zeta-Jones’ performance with brownface, but let’s face it; it’s brownface.

This is also not the first time a white actress has used ethnic ambiguity to their advantage. Shirley Maclaine, who has naturally hooded eyes, was able to do it in the 1962 film that’s basically posits a white woman stealing a role from a Japanese woman as a comedy, My Geisha, and in 1966’s Gambit, in which she plays opposite Michael Caine as “exotic Eurasian showgirl” Nicole Chang. Most recently, Floriana Lima, an Italian-American actress, was able to use her looks to play Latina Supergirl character Maggie Sawyer. Many more examples exist beyond these two.

Zeta-Jones is looking to have her cake and eat it too again with Cocaine Godmother. But this time, there’s a little bit of pushback.

The noise around this film is only going to grow the closer we get to the film’s 2018 TV premiere. We’ll see how the film handles the impending whitewashing discussion it’ll inevitably come up against.

Racially Insensitive Casting: Peter Dinklage as Hervé Villechiaze (HBO’s “My Dinner with Hervé”)

Hollywood continues to mystify the masses asking for proper (keyword: proper) representation with HBO’s upcoming project, My Dinner with Hervé, detailing a moment in time with Fantasy Island star Hervé VillechaizeAccording to The A.V. Club, HBO’s project supposedly recounts “‘a life-changing’ encounter Villechaize…and a struggling journalist in 1993, the year the Fantasy Island star killed himself at the age of 50.” HBO has released the first image the TV movie starring Jamie Dornan as the journalist in question, Danny Tate, and Peter Dinklage as Villechaize.

If the image looks weird, it’s because Dinklage, unfortunately, pulling a brownface moment. In real life, Villechaize was half-Filipino and half-English. Dinklage, on the other hand, isn’t.

What was the thought process behind this casting decision? More importantly, what was the thought process behind Dinklage, who understands the annoyance of playing stereotypical roles, taking it?

Dinklage, who has achondroplasia (one of the common causes of dwarfism), has been very outspoken about the types of roles he feels are stereotypical for actors with dwarfism. As he told The New York Times in a 2012 interview, he acted onstage and would refuse to book commercial jobs that would have him playing leprechauns or elves. As the article quotes Dinklage as saying in past interview to a theater website, “What I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”

Even though Dinklage’s defining role as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones turned out to be the best of all possible worlds as far as a role goes, Dinklage was initially hesitant about it because of his hesitancy about playing dwarves in fantasy in general, particularly after just playing dwarf character Trumpkin in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, in which he acted under a huge beard. He wanted to make sure the character in Game of Thrones wouldn’t have a beard or pointy shoes.

“Dwarves in these genres always have this look,” he said. “My guard was up. Not even my guard—my metal fence, my barbed wire was up. Even The Lord of the Rings had dwarf-tossing jokes in it. It’s like, Really?

Of course, as we know now, Tyrion Lannister is nothing like a stereotypical fantasy character, which led to Dinklage signing on.

With Dinklage’s clear awareness at the issues facing actors with a disability such as his own, why choose this role, which is essentially taking an opportunity from someone else who needs a big break and could crush it? It seems like the answer lies in one main issue: the lack of roles that are available to actors with dwarfism–in other words, the pervading practice of ableism as the code of business for Hollywood casting.

At the risk of sounding like I’m giving Dinklage an out (I’m certainly not), a role like Hervé Villechiaze doesn’t come around everyday—a role that specifically highlights an actor with dwarfism in an attempt to show the human behind the limiting role he played on television. The casting process, being what it is, was probably HBO making a beeline to Dinklage’s agent, since Dinklage is practically the only hot actor who can fill the role and bring an authenticity to it. With the role being what it is, it’s not a surprise that Dinklage would take it. In all of these films with whitewashing, it’s never a surprise as to why the actors take it—with roles in “swords and sandals” movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings or sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell, the draw is money, higher star wattage, and more big roles down the road.

However, while Dinklage will most certainly bring authenticity to the role from his experience as a person with dwarfism, he clearly can’t bring authenticity to it as far as racial experiences go, and biracial experiences to be specific. If you have to darken your skin because the person you’re playing is a person of color, it’s clear you probably shouldn’t be playing the part.

As a whole, Hollywood isn’t a place that utilizes lateral thinking often; it might seem like Dinklage is the only game in town, but there are, in fact, tons of actors with dwarfism who have been playing fantasy dwarves and dehumanizing roles for years who could also be just as good as Dinklage in this role, if not better. Take for instance, Ronald Lee Clark, an actor who appeared alongside other veteran character actors with dwarfism like Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, and Jordan Prentice in Mirror, Mirror. While Clark might not be Filipino, he is actually Asian, which for Hollywood standards would be a step in the right direction. If Clark was given the chance to audition, who’s to say he wouldn’t have aced it? At the very least, the makeup team wouldn’t need to commit the movie-making sin of brownface.

Also, if I could find Clark by utilizing my memory and an IMDB search, couldn’t the casting office have done the same? Specifically, couldn’t they have scoured Hollywood for an actor who had dwarfism and was also Filipino? Of course, if they actually wanted to. Sure, they wouldn’t get a “big name,” as it were, but arguably, Dinklage himself wasn’t a super big name, even with the Chronicles of Narnia credit, before he was given a chance with Game of Thrones. His role could have easily gone to another actor of typical size who’d be willing to play smaller with the help of movie magic. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with Gary Oldman playing a dwarf in the film Tiptoes, a film where Dinklage himself played a family friend (as referenced in the New York Times interview).

For this article, I reached out to Vilissa Thompson, disability advocate and owner of Ramp Your Voice!. Her take expresses much of the same confusion and irritation about Dinklage being cast as a disabled person of color.

“Authentic representation of disabled people, whether fictional characters or real-life persons, is hard to come by due to many factors, such as cripping up, stereotypical portrayals, and a resistance to show diverse disabled perspectives,” she said. “What occurred with the Peter Dinklage situation is upsetting because we finally have a role that a disabled person should be casted in, and even that was done incorrectly by the whitewashing.”

“This is classic Hollywood, but it’s perplexing to me how you get one aspect of the casting correct (hiring an actually disabled actor) and not the whole thing (hiring a white man instead of an actor of color),” sie said. “It’s disappointing that Hollywood continues to not support disabled actors of color. What a missed opportunity for little people of color to be represented fully. Hollywood has a #DisabilityTooWhite issue when it comes to disabled people of color and media representation – this adds to it. Not only do we not see our stories on the big and small screens; now we have to be concerned about being whitewashed, too?”

It would seem that fear of whitewashing is yet another hurdle disabled actors of color and audience members of color alike have to face when it comes to proper representation. Time will tell if My Dinner with Hervé will get the same social media treatment Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Iron Fist received when it tried to pass off a white actor as an Asian character.