Ethnic Representation in the Western Film Industry

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By: Jennellee Samkhem

“Little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves. Who cares if the lead is an Asian male? If this is the best actor for that role, why does the role have to be indicative of a person’s ethnicity?” -Octavia Spencer

Although advertised as an icon of hope and opportunity for all who dare to chase it, in the Western film industry, it is strikingly obvious that ethnic minorities are weighed down in the competition for movie roles. If roles are landed by people of color, they only seem to feed the flames of stereotypes even more. Even with presumably perfect opportunities like movie roles designed for people of color, Hollywood still manages to intercept these breaks through whitewashing. Though, with recent films such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Black Panther (2018), Hollywood is slowly giving ethnic minorities more chances to show their talent on the big screen.

From the very beginning of film history, movie and television casts have mostly been composed of white actors and actresses and, if a few POC, frequently misrepresented communities of people through tropes derived from years worth of stereotypes. As described by one of our very own sophomores, Casey Duyan, “We [Asian Pacific-Americans] are either portrayed as martial arts masters or outcast nerds,” she stated, “We’re never really seen as just us, if we’re even seen at all”. To some, this may seem like an exaggeration. Though, action movie buffs and avid comedy fans may have taken note of these characters in nearly every martial arts movie or high school melodramas. Works like the Karate Kid franchise and Mean Girls (2002) are prime examples of both tropes. With characters like Mr. Miyagi and the “Asian nerds”, these tropes show the exact way Asians are mostly represented in the Western film industry.

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In film adaptations of novels or history, most believe that the most important aspect is keeping the movie accurate to the book. However, this priority may be overlooked by a practice called “whitewashing”. In short, the basics of whitewashing consists of characters in history and novels who are originally described to be people of color being played by white actors and actresses in the motion picture adaptation. This has been occuring ever since the early 1900s to all ethnic minorities. The first movie that introduced this use was The Birth of Nation (1915) where all the actors who played African Americans covered their light-skin, bringing blackface to cinema.

Although no longer prevalent today, Hollywood still manages to avoid hiring people of color through hiring white people, even for roles designated for ethnic minorities. Whitewashing can even be found in timeless pieces like the musical film West Side Story (1961) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Maria, the female lead of West Side Story and whose Puerto Rican descent plays a key part in the story, is played Natalie Wood: a white woman. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney, who played Mr. Yunioshi, received backlash several decades after the movie’s initial release in response to the apparent yellowface used to impersonate East Asian characteristics.

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Although, there still are traces of whitewashing and an overpowering amount of discriminative people in the Western film industry. With the passing time and persistence from the ethnic minorities in the United States, small roles have led up to major motion pictures in which casts are filled with people of color. Sooner or later more people will be encouraged to fulfill their dreams in film.

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