One of the most infamous cases of the practice of Yellowface the equivalent of Blackface for Asians in Hollywood is the portrayal of the warlord Gengis Khan by John Wayne in the film, The Conqueror. Five decades later one would think that attitudes would have changed and the practice of casting white actors for historically Asian or ethnic characters would have changed let alone altering them with makeup to fit caricatures of a people but sadly it hasn’t. The same story is playing out now as Mickey Rourke has been cast in a retelling of this story. Unlike the John Wayne film Mickey Rourke will be filming in China, Mongolia, and India for the role undoubtedly with people who could claim to be descendants of the Khan’s as background roles and arrow fodder while Rourke plays their cultures hero. This is far from Sin City or Iron Man rather this is an iron clad cinematic sin.
We at the Otaku group recently profiled a series of recent cases at first independently and then with our profile of the racebending group linking what is becoming a disturbingly clear pattern. With the adaptations of Dragonball, The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, Akira, the Weapon, etc all fictional adaptations whose source material featured Asian heroes and it’s Hollywood adaptation replaced them with Caucasian actors. We echo the sentiment of the folks at cinematical who brought this most recent case to our attention, who titled their article you gotta be kidding me!
Hollywood has a checkered past in portrayals of Asians in cinema. There has never been a single instance where a white historical figure has been portrayed by an Asian actor in American cinema while the reverse is playing out in the present as it has in the past. Hollywood has even rewarded this practice. Two Oscars have been awarded to white actresses portraying Asians once in 1937 for the Good Earth a novel based on cultural identity in which that identity was changed to “Eurasian” white rather than Asian, removing the social commentary about racism and the attitudes of the day on mecegination. The second Oscar even came not to a white woman playing an Asian woman and not in the 1930’s but playing an Asian man in the 1980’s! Awarded to linda Hunt, in the year of living dangerously. It is also worth pointing out that seven films featuring blackface were also nominated for Oscars. The point being it wasn’t a fringe practice in Hollywood rather it was the accepted and rewarded status quo that benefited white actors and as the Academy being self selecting and still overwhelmingly white continued to reward white actors regardless of the context of their roles. It didn’t end blackface out of it’s conscience it rewarded it and found it preferable to hiring black actors for roles as evidenced by the Oscars it handed out to those performances. It ended it because the public refused to pay good money on a bad cinematical practice and we need to send the message that Yellowface to is a practice we won’t pay to see.
Arguably the most famous detective novels of their day, Charlie Chan stared an Asian detective and was based on the real life exploits of detectives in Hawaii yet Hollywood cast a caucasian in the role through more than three decades of it’s popular portrayal on the silver screen. When Bruce Lee pitched the idea for Kung Fu after the success of the Green Hornet the studio took the idea but cast Keith Karadine instead of lee telling the prominent oscar nominated actor Mako who was helping lee pitch the project that whites would simply turn the tv sets off if they saw an Asian man play a hero. To be clear the studio favored Keith Caradine over an Oscar nominee and the man who went on to have two of the top ten grossing films of the following decade. Indignities like this that Mako saw within Americas acting community on stage, screen, and tv pushed him to create the East West Players to advance Asian American actors and when he was nominated for a Tony he accepted the nomination by saying he would refuse the award until conditions for Asian actors improved. Among Mako’s last work was the role of Iroh in the animated version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The film adaptation now features three white leads in the place of originally Asian roles and spits in the face of his legacy.
This casting then comes in a long context that removes any ambiguity from this most recent decision. It is a brazen and at this point blatantly racist move where we shall again see that only the identity of the lead character shall be changed from the Asian persuasion. The message couldn’t be more clear. With historical (Mickey Rourke as Gengis Kahn) mythical (White lead the Forbidden Kingdom) fictional (The Weapon, White Lead.The Last Airbender, Three White Leads. Dragonball, Two White Leads. Akira, All White Leads.) or contemporary (21 and Extraordinary Measures both are true stories with the people they are based on still living and still Asian while cast white.) The message is, ASIANS NEED NOT APPLY IN HOLLYWOOD