“Every Single Word Spoken” & Hollywood’s Whitewashing

I recently had a discussion with a friend (and our Easter Orgasm Cookie recipe contributor), Hoshi, about the whitewashing of the summer movies of 2015: Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Pixels, Ant Man, Magic Mike XXL. My girlfriend even joked about the sole POC-voiced character in Inside Out representing the emotion Disgust among an otherwise whitewashed cast representing emotions within whitewashed characters.

For a while, it was easy for us to stop at some point and wonder if we were all nitpicking too hard. After all, there were attempts at some cast diversity. Pitch Perfect 2 had a few PoC characters, but then they also had all those racist jokes. Jurassic World brought back BD Wong! …but he was there for like five minutes and also a villain. And I’ve touched on the whitewashing in MMFR. Strides in the right direction are technically radical changes in Hollywood’s eyes. There is still hope.

The conversation dwindled, the righteous indignation puttered out into vague unease, on the backburner until the next Hollywood hit and impending discussion. And then Hoshi sent me a link to a blog by Dylan Marron entitled Every Single Word Spoken.

Marron is a Venezuelan-American actor, writer, and director, who splices together scenes featuring dialogue spoken by People of Color in mainstream Hollywood movies. For example, from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:

These videos — 17 so far on Marron’s YouTube channel — illuminate the practice and habit of using white-prominent casts to tell supposedly universal stories (romantic comedies to action adventures to fantasy fare). By offering these succinct looks at the PoC actors and their dialogue only, it becomes very clear that PoC characters are offered very limited roles in mainstream films. Most are side characters, such as best friends or Fake Diversity inserts in larger groups of friends, or background characters with titles like “Airport Man,” “Man on Plane,” “Man On Screen,” or “Hostess” (all the PoC with dialogue in Friends with Benefits).

These hours-long movies generally get boiled down to fractions of a minute (about 43 seconds for Spike Jonze’s critically-acclaimed Her; only one in these characters gets a proper name) to, at most, just over a minute and a half (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

As an actor, Marron has faced casting exclusions due to his race or sexuality. In an interview with the Washington Post, he says, “It feels like no matter how much I’ve done, no matter how much work I have under my belt, no matter how much I have to speak for, the talent just doesn’t matter.” Marron has been using the project to explore this reaction, to show how much mainstream films exclude PoC systematically, perhaps not so much out of malice but out of sheer habit. Says Marron, “I’m not saying that any of these films are racist. I’m not saying that any of these filmmakers are racist. I’m saying that the system that they’re contributing [to] has some deeply racist practices.

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.
Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan.
Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.

Marron is not the first person to call out Hollywood on their whitewashed casts. For some reason, despite public outcry, Rooney Mara remained cast as Native American “princess” Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan — including much of her tribespeople if the trailer is anything to go by — just as Johnny Depp went through with playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger remake. Cameron Crowe recently issued an “apology” for casing Emma Stone as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian, half-white Allison Ng in Aloha, stating “As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.”

I think that’s a pretty succinct version of Hollywood’s acceptance of PoC: “You’re welcome in movies, as long as you do not look like a person of color. Or better yet, if you’re not one at all.” As Marron’s ESWS project showcases, PoC are used to populate a background world (what I referred to as Fake Diversity in a previous post). When PoC characters are brought to the foreground, culture becomes a costume (Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story to Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia — or, more egregiously, cultural background is erased entirely (Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo, Analeign Tipton as half-Ethiopian Nora in Warm Bodies).

This erasure of PoC, outside of spaces delegated specifically for PoC actors and directors (historical biopics, Tyler Perry movies, and not much else), is a far cry from realistic storytelling. It is outright silencing. Accordingly, the most telling of Marron’s ESWS videos, are the ones that highlight whitewashing to the post of exclusion, namely Into the Woods and the Biblical retelling of Noah:

Ari Handel, one of the screenwriters for Noah, addressed the lack of PoC by saying, “What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth and, as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.”

The race of the individuals doesn’t matter, supposedly, but the default is still entirely white. But for every five steps back, there is always a continuing struggle forward. For Marron, it is a new role as popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale’s scientist, Carlos, after the original voice, Jeffrey Cranor stepped down, saying, “It sucks that there’s a white, straight male (me) playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

Marron’s response: “I was so touched […] because I was that young Latino queer kid who would look up at movie screens […] and never see a reflection of myself, and, God, it sucks because what you are subconsciously told is that there is not a place for you. It’s like you can try and do what you want, but people who look like you and people who talk like you don’t get to do this stuff.”

Well, now at least one of us gets to do that, for real. Congrats, Dylan Marron. We’re rooting for you!


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