Not Since “Tiffany’s:” The 10 Worst Whitewashing Incidents in Film

Ryan Mikel, Entertainment Editor

#10 — Mena Suvari in “Struck”

In May 2007, Stuart Gordon’s “Struck” premiered at Cannes Film Festival to positive reviews and a modest box office. The story focused on the 2001 murder of Gregory Glenn Biggs, in which an inebriated Chante Mallard hit Biggs and subsequently killed him. The film starred blonde bombshell Mena Suvari from “American Beauty;” Suvari, too, received positive reviews for her portrayal of Mallard. There was just one problem: Mallard was of African American descent. OK, there were more problems. To get past this hurdle, the caucasian Suvari donned cornrows, a contemporary urban vernacular and was cast alongside a predominantly black cast.  

#9 — Rita Moreno and the Cast of “West Side Story”

“Life is all right in America. If you’re all white in America.” These famous lyrics from Bernstein and Sondheim’s “America” hit a little too close to home. The film takes places in New York’s Upper West Side, centering on the feud between the Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’ and the caucasian ‘Jets’. While the latter’s casting was conflict-free, the former fell victim to the trope of Hollywood “whitewashing,” by casting Natalie Wood and George Chakiris as “brown faced” Puerto Rican immigrants, each of Russian and Greek descent, respectively. Rita Moreno, an actual Puerto Rican American, played the role of Anita, despite the crew giving her darker makeup and a thicker accent.

#8 — Justin Chatwin in “Dragonball: Evolution”

In 2009, the popular Japanese manga “Dragon Ball” got its long-awaited screen adaptation, with creator Akira Toriyama signed on to help with the manga-to-screen transition. Disregarding Toriyama’s suggestions, director James Wong cast Canadian actor Justin Chatwin as the Chinese martial artist with superhuman strength, Goku. Nailing nothing but Goku’s signature hairstyle, caucasian Chatwin and “Dragonball” flopped critically and commercially. Toriyama revealed that the film really “ticked [him] off,” unable to even call the finished product “Dragon Ball.”

#7 — Noah Ringer in “The Last Airbender”

A childhood favorite turned Golden Raspberry Award Winner for Worst Picture, “The Last Airbender,” too, received its long-awaited screen adaptation with legendary director M. Night Shyamalan behind the lense. Earning a mere 6 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the film was an utter disaster from its half-assed plot to its juvenile acting and direction all the way to its insensitive, yellow-faced performances of the iconic Aang and Katara. The roles and show are based on Chinese martial arts. However, Shyamalan argued that, “Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It’s meant to be interpretive.” The series co-creator Bryan Konietzko denounced this misunderstanding of the character’s racial identities, stating his series “speaks for itself which obviously does not include the gross misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our work in [Shyamalan’s film].”

#6 — Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange”

I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you, Tilda Swinton? An Oscar-winning actress and rare breed of talent, Tilda Swinton’s career took a detour in the 2016 superhero film “Doctor Strange,” where she portrayed the role of Ancient One – an elderly Tibetan man. However, it was more of the casting than Swinton’s performance that lead to controversy, with Swinton handling the situation like a seasoned professional. She wrote to Margaret Cho for the comedian’s thoughts on the casting. Cho responded, “Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.” Swinton moved forward with filming, calling “Doctor Strange” a “conscious effort to shake up stereotypes.”

#5 — John Wayne in “The Conqueror”

Throwing it back to the mid-1950s, one of the earliest examples of whitewashing and, more specifically, yellow face can be found in John Wayne’s “The Conqueror.” Portraying the Mongolian historical figure Genghis Khan, Wayne wore extensive makeup and facial prosthetics to appear the slightest bit East Asian. The cast eventually got what they deserved, though, with many critics citing “The Conqueror” as the worst film of all time.

#4 — Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”

Almost 60 years after the yellow face debacle of Wayne’s ‘Khan,” major studios still release Asian films – often with Asian directors and Asian casts – with blonde-haired, blue-eyed caucasian leads, for example, Scarlett Johansson in the flop-tastic “Ghost in the Shell.” Once again adapting manga to the big screen, “Ghost” received massive backlash before production even began, with many loyal fans upset over Johansson’s casting as Motoko Kusanagi. The film later Americanized the name to Mira Killian. Johansson and director Rupert Sanders denied yellow face allegations, claiming the character was just a “shell.” The film’s plot later exposed this falsehood, revealing Johansson’s character used to be Japanese girl named Motoko – an obvious last-minute ploy to justify yellow face. Making matters worse, rumors surfaced that Paramount Studios were using computer-generated imagery to make Johansson appear Asian, according to ScreenCrush. Oh no, ScarJo.

#3 — Laurence Olivier in “Othello”

Possibly the most cringeworthy submission on this list, the 1965 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” features a caucasian Laurence Olivier in blackface portraying the titular Arab character. Covered in an almost-dark green makeup, Olivier attempts a Middle Eastern accent with an unusual walk and particularly deep voice. Olivier’s performance was nominated for an Academy Award. No further comments at this time.

#2 — Luise Rainer in “The Good Earth”

The 1973 not-so “Good Earth” is one of the earliest examples of whitewashing in the cinematic arts, continuing this list’s trend of blonde bombshells in yellow face with shiny Academy awards. Featuring non-Asian actress Luise Rainer depicted in transformative yellow face as O-Lan, “The Good Earth” was an acclaimed adaptation of Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name that, while featuring a predominantly Asian cast of children and adults, failed to cast Asian American performers in its top billed roles. Despite the unfortunate casting, the film departed from skewed stereotypes of the time by depicting the roles in a positive light, eventually going on to win two Oscars and a Best Picture nomination.

#1 — Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

We all remember the opening shot of a young Audrey Hepburn window shopping at Tiffany and Co. on Fifth Avenue. Many people even know that Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly was a call girl. But what a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their heads around is the overtly racist performance of Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi. Aside from the makeup and mouth prosthetics, what makes Rooney’s performance so painfully tone death is the usage of every East Asian caricature, generalization, stereotype, etc. in the book in a whopping cringeworthy 114 minutes. Upon the film’s release, the portrayal was seen as harmless. Now, almost 60 years later, it is considered a seminal example of the film industry’s present-day inability to simply cast Asian actors in Asian roles.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 5 print edition. Email Ryan Mikel at [email protected].