Why we can’t have a minority hero

Why we can’t have a minority hero
Comment: There is a distinct reason why there are so few actors from minority backgrounds and it isn't going to change soon, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
21 Sep, 2017
The cast of Prince of Persia was conspicuously short of Iranian actors [Getty]
It's interesting to see how reflective, and reactive, we have become as audiences of fiction. I specify fiction because of its malleability – the harsh realities of the world can be muted, dimmed, replaced or reimagined when one isn't limited creatively.

And I think this is why many engaged people, with social media and an entire internet universe at our disposal, are so vocal with their grievances.

It seems that with this hyper awareness of identity politics, there is no excuse for committing a major faux pas in the creation of fictional works. Whether it's a book, film or television show, we have never been in a better position to diversify our fictional offerings

The problem is that the White voice remains the dominant one, occupying what is considered a neutral space as the 'norm'. This means that, for the most part, when we see stories play out on screen or in a book, characters from any sort of minority are rarely portrayed first and foremost as human characters with a complex journey. Their difference is not incidental, their difference is the point.

The white saviour obsession is an extension of colonialism

So it's not difficult to understand why so many people are disgruntled with what is generally termed 'whitewashing', particularly in cinema. Actress Constance Wu expressed her displeasure with a ponytail-wearing Matt Damon being a white saviour in The Great Wall. Tina Fey came under fire for Whisky Tango Foxtrot's white woman in Afghanistan priv-lit approach (and white cast). Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her performance as white saviour to a loveable African-American with talent on the football field.

These white saviour stories are nothing new, but as audiences become more discerning and celebrate non-traditional casting (Rogue One), it feels like a step backwards when we're reminded that the primary storytellers and producers are not from diverse backgrounds.

And just a couple of weeks ago, there was a collective sigh when it was announced the highly-anticipated Guy Ritchie adaptation of Aladdin, for which he famously went to pains to advertise for non-Anglo actors in the lead parts, will now include a white prince.

But there was never a white prince in Aladdin. Disney set their 90s cartoon film in the fictional Arab city of Agrabah, but the original story was set in a Cantonese city of China. Aladdin is not a white person's story, but in the hands of a Hollywood studio it is told through the lens of white culture.

Putting aside the racial issues, the issue is that there was never a white prince in Aladdin. It's not a white person's story, but in the hands of a Hollywood studio it is told through the lens of white culture.

Casting an Arab in the lead role of Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a step forward, but it's a move that is arguably diminished by the need to change the story to be inclusive to white audiences who are already abundantly catered to by American film- and TV makers. White stories are the default and are not at all in danger of extinction.

It's an interesting move to dissect, because it points to how complex the diversity machinery is. The problem isn't simply casting white actors in roles that should be played by people from the minority being portrayed, it's the persistent desire to prop up white Americans as heroic and their intentions consistently noble. Consider any war-related film in Hollywood's history, any political thriller, and the pattern is clear: America is great and under constant threat from the rest of the world.

History in the real world and on the silver screen tells us this is simply not the reality.

But take, for example, the acclaimed film Hidden Figures. In this 'based-on-a-true-story' tale, three black female employees at NASA are forced to navigate a systemically racist system. Working in the shadow of their white peers, despite displaying utter brilliance as mathematicians.

The heroes of this story are the women. It's their journeys we're invested in. It's their success and recognition we're rooting for as we watch each of them fight the unfairness of the world they inhabit. And we celebrate when they overcome these challenges. But one of the films strongest moments belongs to a white character.

In the film, Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, manager to mathematical genius Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), a curt, hard man who demands total loyalty to the job. When he discovers Johnson disappears for blocks of time, he's irate. But then it's revealed – she's not slacking off, she's just going to the toilet, an exercise that takes 40 minutes because she has to travel to the 'coloured' bathroom across campus.

Harrison seems shocked. Then irate as he destroys the 'coloured' sign above the bathroom. He's the white saviour. Cue the cheers.

Except it didn't happen this way. As reported in Vice News, "The book states very clearly that Johnson 'refused to so much as enter the Colored bathrooms,' and that nobody ever tried to make her do so."

The director, Theodore Melfi, told Vice: "There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing … And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?"

I grew up watching Hollywood films that only portrayed Arabs as untrustworthy, backward terrorists.

Despite the film's strengths, it is weakened by its desire to inject white heroism in the struggle against racism. It is, quite simply, a salve to collective conscience of people who historically were complicit in upholding a racist system.

Meanwhile, writing for Teen Vogue, Fariha Róisín makes a similar complaint, taking the argument further by saying the "white saviour obsession is an extension of colonialism".

It may seem innocuous to some, but the lack of fully-formed characters who are not white is a significant issue because pop culture is very much connected to how we see the world. It's a complaint that can be extended to LGBTIQ minorities and people with disability.

I grew up watching Hollywood films that only portrayed Arabs as untrustworthy, backward terrorists. Even something as seemingly offbeat as The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Romancing the Stone, saw Michael Douglas, the flawed but likeable hero, say to his Arab companion: 'Pipe down, towelhead!'.

Read more: Finsbury Park: On whitewashing the 'white crusade'

These centrist approaches are not always lightened by advancement in diversity. While the US Emmy Awards recognised the skill of actors and writers from minorities, there were a lot of 'firsts'. Riz Ahmed won an award at the Emmys, making him the first Asian man to win one for acting.  He was quick to point out that it's a start but we're not quite at a resting place yet.

"I don't know if any one person's win of an award, or one person snagging one role, or one person doing very well changes something that's a systemic issue... I think that's something that happens slowly over time.

As the entrance of a white prince in Agrabah indicates, it's certainly a long road.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.