Whitewashing is an attempt by the media to remove the presence of minority peoples from a society’s collective consciousness. It is not an act of coincidence, nor is it an accident. Whitewashing is an active choice on the part of the media elites made to perpetuate the myth of white supremacy. Hollywood’s tradition of whitewashing is so deeply ingrained within the Western psyche that it not only mirrors public opinion, but directs it.
Hollywood has long been a stage on which America’s enemies are vilified, whether through blatant propaganda or subtle manipulation of fiction. The Disney classic Aladdin comes to mind, as the protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, are anglicised, while Jafar, the antagonist, is an extreme caricature of the Middle East. Similarly, Disney’s Pocahontas portrays the Native Americans as xenophobic and ignorant for not welcoming their conquerors with open arms. A recent film adaptation of the popular children’s cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was cast almost exclusively with white actors, though the series was set in a fantastical version of East Asia; only the villain, played by Dev Patel, was straight-cast.
But there’s more than casual racism at work; film is becoming more and more an important lens through which we view and record our own history. Why is it then, that two of the most critically-acclaimed films of the latest Academy Award season favour a white man’s revisionism over truth?
First, there is Argo. A classic story of American valour under extreme duress. A widely patriotic tale, hinging on a singular character, Tony Mendez. Mendez, who in reality is Mexican-American, was played by Ben Affleck. Considering that there are very few “A-list” Latino heroes in American history, it is difficult to see the rationale behind this casting decision. It only serves to further marginalize an already repressed minority. And considering the enormous tensions between white America and the American Latinos (be they immigrants or citizens), the further suppression of Latino presence in the mainstream media only fosters the cultural, social, and resultant political and economic gap behind which many American Latinos live. Almost twenty percent of the United States population is Hispanic, and that percentage grows every year. Yet, as the media relegates their media presence to gangsters, thugs, and telenovelas, it is difficult to cultivate a politically supportive environment for the American Latino population, both domestically and regarding foreign policy.
Second, there is Zero Dark Thirty, which is less an issue of whitewashing than of American self-justification of the white saviour complex under which United States foreign policy has been operating since before the phrase ‘Manifest Destiny’ passed John O’Sullivan’s lips. A decade of devastating war in Iraq and Afghanistan, portrayed as simply a noble quest to find and slay the terrorist dragon, Zero Dark Thirty casts the Unites States as a valiant knight in shining armour, boldly braving the evils of the world for the Greater Good.
The American cultural and political obsession with self-justification leads to an interesting domestic phenomenon regarding aggressor’s guilt. Recently, Quentin Tarantino was heavily criticized for his abundant use of the “n-word” in his film, Django Unchained. The protest, made against a film about bounty hunters at the apex of the Southern plantation era, came more from the white communities than from the African American ones.
There is a line that Hollywood has begun to toe, a line to which it has easily led the American people. It the line where the movement to educate people stops, and the attempt to make clear the consequences of their racism begins.
The United States is the leading power in the world, a great democracy with a massive economy and an even larger military. America can be a force for positive progress within the international system, but this progress is stunted by a national media that encourages Americans to dwell within the nouveau-imperialistic paradigm that perpetuates the myth of ultimate American superiority. It’s a form of isolation, a way to neglect the rest of the world while still ruling it. The American public is a highly fickle creature, one which exists almost independent of the American people. But it is the American public that elects the leader of the free world, that chooses the people who decide on the fate of the globe. So unless popular opinion shifts, the electorate will remain stagnant, and progress within the international system will stall. But Hollywood and the media play an inextricably vital role in public opinion, so it is upon the media elites that rests the power to coerce positive forward motion from the world.