Pendulum: A Short Reflection on White Washing and Diverse Casting in Media

Updated on August 19, 2016
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

What I am about to say might seem traitorous as I am a Black man, but a recent news article I came across is forcing this question for me. This week, a casting announcement was made for the upcoming Spiderman: Homing Coming film coming out next year. The actress’s name is Zendaya and it is said she is going to be playing the role of Mary Jane Watson. The character, both within the comics and the prior Spiderman movies, has been portrayed as a red-headed, White woman. The actress however is not.

It is being said that actress, Zendaya has won the role of Mary Jane Watson in Spiderman: Homecoming
It is being said that actress, Zendaya has won the role of Mary Jane Watson in Spiderman: Homecoming

Taking Sides With Type Casting

I should be clear that I have no issue with the casting. My question has to do with a larger issue that it is connected with it. The past year, Hollywood movies have been marked by a struggle to become more diverse. However, nowhere was this more apparent than with the ‘white-washing’ of ethnic roles. This past year, several movies found themselves scandalized because the actors they choose for certain roles did not match the traditional race of the character or the region they came from. This included Gods of Egypt, Pan, Aloha, and now with the upcoming film, Doctor Strange.

I had written to my local paper op ed a piece about how this type of casting is nothing new and has been done for decades. However that was coming from the point of view of minorities. This however is not dealing with that angle. The casting of a non-white actress in a traditionally white role has been highly praised so far, which again isn’t a problem.

The problem comes up when comparing the situations side by side, as many people will inevitably do the next time a film is called out for white washing. At least in recent years, casting done by most Hollywood directors and producers is done for either skill or ability to bring in money to make up the expenditure: hopefully both. Casting done as outright racism like in the 40’s and 50’s isn’t an impossibility, but also not as likely in a progressive-focused Hollywood. If we presume for the moment that to be the case, what would happen if there was an uproar over casting minority in the role that was originally a character of another race?

Actually that did happen, with the reboot of Fantastic Four came out. Human Torch, a character who was known to be blonde and blue-eyed, was instead played by Micheal B. Jordan. When there was an uproar over that, people who were protesting were immediately called out as racist, and maybe they were. The question remains though is that is this a double standard?

Rooney Mara came under fire for playing the role of Tiger Lilly who was Native-American.
Rooney Mara came under fire for playing the role of Tiger Lilly who was Native-American.

Equality or Power?

The purpose for progressive moves in society is to establish justice, equality, and opportunity to those who have had it denied them. However, human nature, something that we all have, swings like a pendulum. It will go from one extreme until pulled towards the other extreme. And there are many people who feel that the pendulum is starting to go too far in the other direction.

The danger of any movement done in the name of justice or righteousness is that it can too easily make the transition from true justice, to power. I heard a comedian once note that changing law isn’t about justice but about who is holding power at that particular time as many of the things now we consider unjust were once legal. The argument has been made by some with the counter question: “Well why not?”

This view holds that those who have been oppressed are deserving of having a little more power than normal: maybe all if they’re extreme enough. This view poisons the equality that earlier minority actors struggled to get and still is struggling with. It’s the pendulum full on in the other direction and only a matter of time before it returns to the other side.

Congratulations but With a Caution

That actors who would otherwise have a harder time getting acting gigs because of who they are, are getting more gigs is great. Fifty years ago it may have been near impossible for them. However, in that quest to try and reach a balance, we have to ensure that the ball doesn’t swing too far the other way. When people start getting what they want or the position that they want, they can rationalize the shit out of it, without caring that they actually might be turning into what they are fighting against: “That’s not the same! That’s different because…”, fill in the blank.

So great news that Zendaya won the role in Spiderman, truly. For those though on the look out for whitewashing, just be careful the next time someone calls out another film for casting an actor who doesn’t match the original race for the role. When you point the finger at someone, three others are pointing back at you.

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