Hollywood Whitewashing: John Oliver Explains, Rooney Mara Regrets

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2016

With the Oscars mere days away, the continued backlash over #OscarsSoWhite remains a topic of conversation. Over the past few days, the conversation has pivoted a bit from the lack of recognition for minorities during award season to the subject of whitewashing. Put simply, whitewashing is the long Hollywood tradition of casting white actors in roles originally meant for people of other colors and ethnicities.

It’s all part of the very layered problem that has been infecting Hollywood for years. Representation, whether it’s behind the camera or in front of it, is broken. We’ve explored this in-depth on numerous occasions. But as we’ve learned over the years, sometimes it take a little bit of comedy to get the point across. In a segment from this past weekend’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver and company sum up Hollywood Whitewashing in a hilarious and deeply troubling segment.

On Monday, actress Rooney Mara gave an interview with The Telegraph in which she discussed her role as Tiger Lily (mentioned in the video above). Describing the situation as a “tricky thing to deal with,” Mara went on to give the following assessment of the subsequent backlash:

“There were two different periods; right after I was initially cast, and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out. I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”

In fairness to Mara and a lot of actors, these decisions are made by the directors and executives casting the movies, many of whom cite financial potential as a reason to cast recognizable white actors in these kinds of roles. As the Last Week Tonight video points out, even Ridley Scott admitted that finding financing for Exodus was made easier with the attachment of names like Christian Bale. This is a tired excuse that is an example of old ways of thinking. And not to get off on a huge tangent about what works and what doesn’t, but let’s consider one example: 2012’s Life of Pi, a multi-Oscar winning film that grossed $609 million worldwide. Sometimes a good movie is a good movie. And a marketing department – in this case Fox – finds a way to sell a movie regardless of who is on the poster.

Next: The Impossible Problem of Forcing Diversity in Art

In Mara’s case, she insists that Pan director Joe Wright’s intentions were “genuine,” but isn’t afraid to admit that the movie is problematic: “Do I think all of the four main people in the film should have been white with blonde hair and blue eyes? No. I think there should have been some diversity somewhere.”

The important thing is that the conversation continues. And as Mara herself says in the interview with The Telegraph, that this is not something we reduce to soundbites and hot takes. In order for meaningful change to occur, the conversation needs to be focused on the studio decision-makers who are most capable of enacting change. To this end, I would suggest reading this USA Today Diversity Scorecard, in which 14 Hollywood studios were surveyed to determine the diversity of their announced 2016 slates. In a breakdown of 184 movies, USA Today found that most studios are well below an acceptable benchmark for diversity. Which means there’s a strong chance we’ll be talking about #OscarsSoWhite again next year.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)