A short history of white-washing in cinema

Cameron Crowe’s latest film has been causing controversy before even being released. The title, Aloha, derives from a Hawaiian word, and some people have argued that the use of this word is an example of Hollywood abusing other cultures for profit. It’s not just the use of this ‘sacred’ word that is typical of Hollywood’s exploitative practices, though. In Aloha, Emma Stone’s character is called ‘Allison Ng’ – but what is this name supposed to mean?

Not long after Stone appears onscreen, her hyper-energetic Allison Ng introduces herself as one-quarter Hawaiian, thus reassuring the audience that she speaks with some authority on the country’s cultural and spiritual values. She is also, we learn, one-quarter Chinese. She doesn’t just say this once – her character talks a lot and mentions it at least five times because, presumably, Ng is very proud of her ancestry. Yet each time, it’s harder to take these claims and their underlying implications seriously.

According to one writer, Crowe’s erasure of racial difference and racial pride isn’t modern or enlightened, but ‘more in line with the Elvis Presley tradition’. It is, in other words, stuck in the conservatism of mid-century cultural imperialism that values star power over accurate racial representation. Furthermore, it reflects an ugly ideology: that anything white will be more accepted than anything Other and, as such, attract more box office revenue.

Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, accused the film of presenting a ‘white-washed’ version of the state. ‘Caucasians only make up thirty per cent of the population, but from watching this film you’d think they made up 99 per cent,’ Aoki stated. While this statement must be taken in context – the majority of Hawaii’s population are Asian Pacific Islanders, but its major focus is an American Air Force base – it sours Crowe’s own statement that Aloha is a ‘love letter’ to Hawaii. The film opens with a montage of nice photos celebrating some of the culture, history, and dress, and the characters do occasionally discuss spirituality, such as the word ‘mana’, and the idea that nobody owns the sky. (It’s an idea that is later translated by the main character Gilcrest into military terms, which he then uses to save the day, as well as his freedom and his relationship.) But in general, Hawaii is used more as an exotic backdrop than a fleshed-out, appreciated location.

Ahistorical white-washing, and the use of locations as exotic backdrops, are not new to filmmaking practice. In 1915, DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation portrayed black men as savages, many played by white men in blackface. Later, Swedish actor Nils Asther was cast as the titular Chinese warlord in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). And American Ona Munson performed a very exaggerated role as a Chinese woman, Gin Sling, in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). This sort of casting was common practice, as Anna May Wong discovered – Chinese actors were given secondary roles but never well-represented as a lead. William A Wellman’s Blood Alley (1955) used the backdrop of mainland China and Hong Kong for a chance to feature John Wayne and Lauren Bacall as American saviours (although it was filmed entirely in California). Many of the featured ‘Chinese’ roles were played by white actors, including Anita Ekberg.

Australia has been known to engage in cinematic white-washing, too. In 1955, filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel cast a white actor in a major role in their film Jedda (also known as Jedda: The Uncivilised). An Indigenous teenager, Rosalie Kunoth, was cast as Jedda, but credited as ‘Ngarla Kunoth’ to make her name more separate from the whiteness of the colonialists – that is, to make her seem more not-white. Paul Reynall was cast as the respectable love interest Joe, a white man wearing blackface.

It’s embarrassing, although unsurprising, how long this practice has continued for. Blackface took on other forms, that erased the identities of Latinos and Indians, among others. Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s stunning, shocking 1947 film about British nuns in the Himalayas, starred established actors Jean Simmons and Esmond Knight as Indians, their white skin covered with makeup. Hollywood actors like Rock Hudson, Robert Taylor, and Burt Lancaster were variously made up to look like Native Americans. Natalie Wood was cast as the Puerto Rican lead in Robert Wise’s 1961 film version of West Side Story (with Marni Nixon dubbing her singing voice), and Charlton Heston played a Mexican in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). To be honest, such a list could go on forever.

Only last year, Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott, was helmed by a cast of white actors masquerading as Egyptians, including Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, historical epics are fond of white-washing: Twentieth-Century Fox’s Cleopatra did it in 1963, as did Warner Bros’ 2004 film Troy.) The embarrassment of this scenario was made worse by Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter-comment, ‘Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.’ Not only was the production ignorant of and harmful to Egypt and Africa, but the discourse that followed in the wake of Murdoch’s PR disaster is typical of the blinders that so many people seem to wear when it comes to diversity. In his book White, Richard Dyer writes, ‘The assumption that white people are just people, which is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colours are something else, is endemic to white culture.’ Murdoch’s position might be simply ignorant, but we can’t ignore that it comes after a very long history of sidelining ethnicities that don’t align with whatever category of white is desired.

Skin colour isn’t everything, and race cannot necessarily be identified or codified by any specific shade. But race is embodied, and to reject casting of minority actors because they might not have the same cultural capital as white Hollywood stars is a practice that needs to stop. It is dishonest of Crowe and Sony Pictures to defend their film as respectful of Hawaiian people and culture, because in so many ways, it is the opposite. An apology, or an acknowledgement of other motivations (money, for example), would have been nice. In his first scene in Aloha, the film’s only featured Hawaiian character Dennis ‘Bumpy’ Kanahele wears a t-shirt that declares himself ‘Hawaiian by birth’ – on the back, though, it reads ‘American by force’. This force has continued to force Bumpy, and so many non-white actors, to the margins.



Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross writes and teaches in Melbourne, and holds a PhD in cinema studies. She is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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  1. So what you’re saying is that they should stop this so-called whitewashing and include actors in films who look more like their supposed race. Andrew Bolt argued something similar, saying that ‘they’ couldn’t possibily be Aboriginal because ‘they’ were too white. He thought indigenous people should look more indigenous. So perhaps writers such as yourself should stop whitewashing the voices of other races as you’re writing on their behalf all the time?

    1. You’re spot on Bartleby. That’s like my Uni lecturers telling us that there should be more diversity in multiculturalism yet every single one of them are from Anglo background. Or when Jane Elliott (a white woman) divides a group of white people into ‘blue eyes’ and ‘brown eyes’ and “teaches” them what bad whites/racists they are.

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