Whitewash, Workin’ at the Whitewaaaaash…


CREDIT: Wikipedia, KGC-03/STAR MAX/IPx/AP.

The lack of diversity in Hollywood isn’t exactly news to many — but the creators of an upcoming film about the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi clearly aren’t getting it.

David Franzoni, an American screenwriter who worked on the film Gladiator, and producer Stephen Joel Brown told the Guardian that they hoped their upcoming film about Rumi would challenge the stereotypical portrayals of Muslims in Hollywood.

But for the two lead characters — Rumi, and his spiritual adviser, Shams of Tabriz — they said they were hoping to get Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey, Jr., respectively. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” said Brown, apparently seeing no irony in believing that whitewashing a film will help dismantle stereotypes.


As many on social media rightly pointed out, one thing about Rumi’s life, then, is clear: He wasn’t white.



While Hollywood has long taken an interest in other parts of the world, it hasn’t done enough to make sure that the people from those regions get a chance to tell the story. Lead roles have been whitewashed in many movies about the Middle East, including Gods of Egypt starring Gerard Butler, Prince of Persia starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale. The full list of movies that have been similarly cast with white actors — despite the characters clearly being of other backgrounds — is far too long, but recent examples include Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, and Doctor Strange, among many, many more.

As ThinkProgress has previously reported, there is a serious lack of opportunity for non-white actors in Hollywood. When it comes to Muslim and Middle Eastern actors specifically, they’re often typecast into roles such as “Terrorist #4” — making it that much worse when a lead role they can actually play is given to a white actor instead.

In an in-depth GQ interview with some of the most famous Middle Eastern actors — like Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, and Sayed Badreya — Jon Ronson found that pretending to hijack planes and kill infidels were usually the only roles available. As Ronson noted, the lack of opportunity is so warped that many of the actors actually have tips for how to stand out at terrorist auditions.

“If I’m going in for the role of a nice father, I’ll talk to everybody,” Badreya told GQ. “But if you’re going for a terrorist role, don’t fucking smile at all those white people sitting there. Treat them like shit. The minute you say hello, you break character.”

“But it’s smart at the end of the audition to break it,” clarified Hrach Titizian, an actor who appeared on Homeland. “‘Oh, thanks, guys.’ So they know it’s okay to have you on set for a couple of weeks.”

Oh, but we’re post racist, you betcha! :Insert an enormous, spine-popping eyeroll here: If the casting of this movie goes as planned, I certainly won’t be watching it. I have never been a fan of DiCaprio, it’s a mystery to me what people see in him, the most I can elicit is a meh. Having read a fair amount of Rumi’s work, I would love a movie about him and his life if it was done well, and doing it well includes accuracy. That leaves Hollywood out.

Full Story at ThinkProgress.


  1. says

    Shit. Remember when Hollywood gave Joel Gray the role of Chiun in “Remo Williams”? Because apparently central casting couldn’t come up with an old Korean or Chinese actor. I bet Chow Yun Fat could have done it if he stretched his skills.

    The only possible excuse is that DiCaprio is a “draw” and will bring in some fans. If you ever encounter someone making that argument, here’s the counter-move:
    “You mean they are planning to make a bad movie? Because if they are planning to have to have A-listers draw audiences then they appear to know in advance that the movie is going to be a flop without a draw. WTF?”

  2. rq says

    (a) I cannot stand DiCaprio and (b) WTF Hollywood you’d think they’d learn at some point.
    And I hold no hopes that DiCaprio will have the decency to decline the role. You’d think their marketing department would be capable of making the film enough of a draw on the basis of Rumi’s life story without needing the ‘star power’ of DiCaprio. Good lord, I can’t stand the guy. They’ve just turned me away from any desire I may have had to spend money on this movie.

  3. Dunc says

    Because if they are planning to have to have A-listers draw audiences then they appear to know in advance that the movie is going to be a flop without a draw. WTF?

    Well, what the hell else are they supposed to use? An interesting plot? Well-written dialogue? Pshaw! There are no entries for anything like that in any Hollywood marketing exec’s projection spreadsheets, and the life of a 13th century Sufi poet presents very limited opportunities for explosions, gun battles, or giant robots.

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