Aladdin: Another Conversation About Whitewashing and Blackface

By Kara Dung and Theresa Arocena

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 11:38 PM PDT

Photo via Atsuko Okatsuk's  twitter account

The popular film “Aladdin” is based on an old Middle Eastern fairy tale. Instead of hiring actors of Middle Eastern descent, Disney decided that “darkening” up the actors was the best course of action for depicting the characters in the story.

BBC Newsbeat reports that Disney admitted that they filled background roles with white people who were made to look as if they were of Arab descent, but that it was "only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control.” The issue resulted in people taking to Twitter to voice their complaints at the company and on a grander scale, the problem Hollywood has with whitewashing shenanigans. Actor Kal Penn posted on Twitter: "When a PR person says they decided to put 100 people in brownface in 2018 because not enough of us are qualified, that's bs, someone just didn't want to spend the $ to do it right." This is not a new practice to Hollywood by any means.

Blackface, or using dark makeup to make white people look ethnically dark, has its origins from the turn of the twentieth century. The Birth of a Nation is one of the earliest and most well-known movies that used blackface. It was released in 1915 and was about a South Carolina town during the Civil War. Actors who were white men, were presented in blackface, and were portrayed as fighting against actors who were dressed as the Ku Klux Klan protecting the “Aryan” cause. According to the New Yorker, the movie “proved horrifically effective at sparking violence against blacks in many cities.”

When the movie Aloha came out in 2015, it appeared that many Hawaiʻi locals were outraged because there are multiple issues of cultural insensitivity with this film. It was clear in the film that one of the main flaws was the “whitewashed” casting of locals, and how local culture was presented. It was set in Hawaii, ostensibly with characters who were indigenous Hawaiian people, which could be people of Polynesian, Japanese, or Chinese descent. It can clearly be seen that the actors were not locals, because their complexion was clearly of European descent. Other egregious problems stemmed from how the white actors were  pronouncing words - in incorrect ways that real Hawaiʻi locals would never actually say.

Emma Stone who starred in "Aloha", spoke out about her role portraying a Chinese Hawaiian character to The Guardian on July 17th, 2015: “I’ve become the butt of many jokes. I’ve learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is. It’s ignited a conversation that’s very important.”

As for the upcoming movie "Niʻihau" (Nee-ee-how) that is scheduled to be released later this year, native Hawaiian people have also been angered about that casting as reported by Huffington Post reporter Carla Herreria last year.

Comedian Jenny Yang expressed her distaste for the movie on Twitter, “WTF IT'S ALOHA THE SEQUEL!!!” Again, a white person who will playing a Japanese Hawaiian person.  They casted Zach McGowan, a white actor, to play the role of  Benehakaka Kanahele, a main character in the story. With this movie it appears as if the film makers didnʻt even think about casting an Asian or local person to play the role. Additionally, it seems that the filmmakers and writers did little to no research for accuracy of this historic story. As they are not allowed to visit the sacred island that is Niʻihau one wonders if they even tried to go to the island of Niʻihau or connected with native Hawaiianʻs of Niʻihau. “Dear White People” or “Fresh Off The Boat” are video programs that do well because their narratives are driven by those who the stories are about. They are able to articulate multiple viewpoints on a topic such as racism without demonizing either side. “Dear White People” is a Netflix show created by Justin Simien, an African-American man, and the majority of his cast are people of color. Not only is this narrative genuine, but it gives visibility to the people the story is about. Based off reviews on Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, the show is able to resonate with the pain of the black community without vilifying those of the opposite viewpoint. It’s poignant, intelligent and relatable for those of college age.

Hollywood Diversity Association is an organization that is attempting to give a solution to the lack of visibility of people of color. It originates from United Charitable, a public charity whose mission is to facilitate the creation of viable opportunities in the film and television sector by bridging the gap between diverse talent and industry decision makers. They work to unite organizations to advocate, educate, design and develop strategies that work to collectively address all aspects of diversity in entertainment, as well as get actors in touch with opportunities and jobs with pro diverse studios.