Casting Minorities

Johnny Depp as Tonto in the film 'The Lone Ranger'.

Johnny Depp as Tonto in the film ‘The Lone Ranger’.

When interviewed by Entertainment Weekly on his upcoming film The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp was quoted as saying: “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of a Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.”  There is certainly some uncertainty as to Depp’s Aboriginal heritage, but even if his great-grandmother was Aboriginal, that would make Depp no more than 1/8 Aboriginal.  Why does this matter?  It might matter to some people.  Johnny Depp has recently finished filming The Lone Ranger, and the film will be out later this year.  In it Depp stars as Tonto, an Aboriginal who partners up with John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger). Considering how underrepresented Aboriginal actors are in film today, that raises the question: Should an actor of one ethnic group be portraying a person of another ethnic group on film?

Orson Welles in blackface as Othello.

Orson Welles in blackface as Othello.

In 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for best actor for his performance in The Godfather.  He did not show up to the Oscars and instead sent a representative, Sacheen Littlefeather, to speak on his behalf.  This is the speech that followed:

It was a controversial moment for the Oscars, met with some applause and some jeers.  The point at hand was the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Hollywood.  It was not uncommon for stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples to be portrayed, unflatteringly in most instances, and when the powers that be in Hollywood could not impose upon Aboriginal actors to indulge in these stereotypes, they simply cast other peoples of dark complexion in their place. The most famous example is perhaps this 70’s commercial where an Italian-American portrays an Aboriginal man:

Hollywood may not currently make as many films depicting Aboriginal peoples as they did during the 60’s, when Westerns were perhaps the most popular genre both on film and on television, but practices aren’t exactly where they should be.  Hollywood’s history is irregular at best.  ‘Birth Of A Nation’, perhaps one of the most racist films ever made, had white people in blackface.  One might assume that close to 50 years later things might have improved somewhat, but when Orson Wells directed and starred in a production of ‘Othello’, he cast himself as the title character and wore blackface to get the job done.  In the same year, Marlon Brando was cast as Emilano Zapata, a Hispanic hero in the Mexican revolution.   In the 60’s, audiences flocked to see Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Many roared with laughter at Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi, an act that did not sit well with many members of the Asian community, as was effectively highlighted in the Bruce Lee biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story:


More recent films, like The Alamo or The Patriot, fail to accurately record the oppressive nature of American history, favouring a portrayal more flattering than what really occurred, and in turn, showing great disrespect for the history of a variety of minority groups.  It seems that a great effort is still needed in order to correct the biases that Hollywood has instilled in film.

Marlon Brando as Zapata.

Marlon Brando as Zapata.

Some instances of members of ethnic groups acting outside of their own ethnicity exist that are perhaps less controversial.  People from all over America and the Commonwealth countries take on roles that require them to put on accents.  Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Polish immigrant in Sophie’s Choice, while Aussies Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger played Americans in the aforementioned film ‘The Patriot.’ There are a great many other examples of English-speaking white people taking on an accent to convince audiences that they are members of a community foreign to them.  This practice is not restricted to ‘white’ people, however.  Lou Diamond Phillips, who has a family tree of great ethnic variety, played Ritchie Valens in the biopic  La Bamba, despite not being Hispanic.  People of Italian decent have played people of Aboriginal or Jewish descent.  Recent films featuring little people, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the recent Peter Jackson film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have all opted to use special effects (at great cost) to make people of average height appear as though they were much shorter, taking potential jobs away actual ‘little people’ who work as actors.  It seems more than a little problematic.

Talented actors like Jordan Prentice don't have an abundance of role to choose from, so when Peter Jackson uses special effects to make taller actors appear short, it takes potential work away from actors like Prentice.

Talented actors like Jordan Prentice don’t have an abundance of roles to choose from, so when Peter Jackson uses special effects to make taller actors appear short, it takes potential work away from actors like Prentice.

Depp is a great actor and a big draw, so I understand why a production company would want to cast him as the lead in a film, but I am uneasy about an actor who is identified by audiences as white being cast to play an Aboriginal person.  Is having Johnny Depp wear face paint to appear to be Aboriginal any different from a white actor wearing blackface?  Or is it unfair to tell an artist, be they a writer, director, actor or painter, that they have no business representing people outside their own ethnicity?  As a writer, I believe that would be extremely limiting, so I suppose a similar argument could be made for actors.  Cloud Atlas had an excellent approach to the matter. That film featured actors from a variety of backgrounds, and each portrayed a number of different ethnicities.  I suppose I wouldn’t have a problem if Black or Aboriginal actors were cast in white roles.  Perhaps the film Lincoln would have been more interesting if a Black man (or woman, for that matter) were cast as the title character.  Instead, it seems that white actors are often given free rein to step outside of their ethnic background whilst actors of minority groups are trapped in a small niche and are not afforded the same opportunities. On occasion, they even see roles written for people within their community awarded to white actors.  I don’t claim to have the answers, but I think there are some issues here that need to be examined.

Warwick Davis is another talented actor, and though he has been fortunate enough to make a career in show business, other little people struggle to find a niche.

Warwick Davis is another talented actor, and though he has been fortunate enough to make a career in show business, other little people struggle to find a niche.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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