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A look at African American actors playing white roles and vice versa...

Updated on March 13, 2013
My "Where's Waldo?" disguise
My "Where's Waldo?" disguise

It’s amazing how a little conversation at work can start a hub. Add to that an old picture you find of yourself from a few years ago and you have more content. Do a little research and you have the proverbial “can of worms” with the lid clearly removed and laying innocuously at the side of the can. That’s what happened to me this week.

In the town where I live in rural Ontario they were holding a “minstrel” show. It was the 60th anniversary of the show and there was even one of the original cast performing. I didn’t attend, but heard about it after the event. My work colleagues were discussing how the singers are no longer permitted to “black out” their faces like they did in the original days, but that the show was still very excellent. After leaving work I got to thinking about the whole “black face” thing and wondered how celebrities in movies represent blacks and whites.

Where does the old picture of yourself come in, I hear you ask? Well, as part of leading a youth group, we would hold an annual “Where’s Waldo?” event at the local mall. Kids would have a few hours to find as many Waldo’s walking around as they could. They had pictures of the people acting as Waldos, but each Waldo could disguise themselves as much as they wanted. One year I went all out and did the whole “black face” thing and was pushed around the mall in a wheelchair by another person who was unknown to the youth. At the time I thought nothing of it and the disguise was excellent as nobody found me. Yet, following the conversation at work, I wondered what others would think about it. Was it a big deal? Was it all harmless fun? My intention was not to offend for sure.

So my hunt began and this is what I discovered…

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer

White actors dressed as black characters (blackfaced)...

In 1927, the American musical film “The Jazz Singer” was released. It told the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jewish singer who went against his devout family to sing, you guessed it, as a jazz singer. The story in itself was not earth shattering, but the star of the film, Al Jolson, performed the role of Jakie in “blackface”. The movie was a success grossing US$126 million in 2005 dollars. Jolson himself was dubbed, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”, a name that stuck for over 40 years. Yet, his fame came by altering his appearance to look like a black person. Then again the culture in 1927 was very different than today.

Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder
Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder
Sir Laurence Olivier in Othello
Sir Laurence Olivier in Othello

In 2008, Dreamworks Pictures released the Vietnam comedy film “Tropic Thunder”. The plot revolves around the filming of a movie telling a Vietnam veteran’s memoirs, with comedic twists. The actor Robert Downey Jr, again in “blackface”, plays one of the characters in the film, a black soldier named Kirk Lazarus. In the movie, Lazarus is a white actor who undergoes a controversial face coloring to play the part of the black soldier. Tropic Thunder grossed US$188 million worldwide. The question remains though, why a black actor was not used to portray the soldier? Was it for purely comedic reasons? Or perhaps a little bit of controversy sells movies?

Of course, we cannot forget Sir Laurence Olivier blacked out in his memorable role in Shakespeare’s "Othello" either.

Eddie Murphy in Coming to America
Eddie Murphy in Coming to America

Black actors dressed as white characters (whitefaced)...

Now let’s switch this up a bit. In 1988, Paramount Pictures released the comedy “Coming to America”, starring Eddie Murphy (an African American actor) and Arsenio Hall. It was about a rich prince named Akeem, from a foreign country who comes to America to escape all the trappings of his wealth. In the movie there is a scene set in a barber’s shop when Prince Akeem goes to get a haircut and interacts with the barber and his customers. One of the customers is an old, white Jewish man named Saul, who is actually played by Eddie Murphy himself, in “whiteface”.

According to the director John Landis, it was his idea to have Eddie Murphy wear makeup to play a Jewish man as a sort of payback for Jewish comedians wearing blackface in the early 1900’s. Coming to America went on to gross US$128 million in the United States.

Marlon & Shawn Wayans in White Chicks
Marlon & Shawn Wayans in White Chicks

16 years later, in 2004, Columbia Pictures released the comedy “White Chicks”. The plot amounted to two black male police officers having to go undercover as two white, blonde females. It was extremely far-fetched, but was advertised as comedy. The officers, played by African American actor brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, underwent a transformation and basically played in “whiteface” for a good portion of the movie. Again it was all done in the name of humor and the movie went on to gross US$113 million worldwide. Obviously this whole movie could not have existed without black people made up to play white people, but does that make it okay?

Mena Suvari in Stuck
Mena Suvari in Stuck

White actors playing historically black characters (no black face)

In 2007, THINKFilm Image Entertainament released the movie “Stuck” starring Mena Suvari (a white actress) in the role of Brandi Boski. In the movie Boski is involved in a collision with a pedestrian who ends up lodged or “stuck” in the windshield of her car. The movie is based on a true story involving Chante Jawan Mallard (a black woman) who struck and ultimately killed a white man with her vehicle. Hollywood decided that in retelling this true story they would alter the race scenario and make the killer white like the victim. That being said, Suvari had her hair styled in “cornrows” in the movie (a style common to black women) and the friends she involves are all black too, as a possible attempt to “black-up” her character a bit without overdoing it. As a result, some black bloggers were quoted as saying that “yet another Black role goes to a White woman.” Interesting stuff, but why not just tell the real story and cast a black actress instead?

There are other examples of black actors playing traditional white characters such as the black actor David Oyelowo playing a historically white King Henry VI on stage in the Shakespeare play, but the question remains, why cast an actor that does not represent the role as it was originally intended?

Hollywood (and other media outlets) has adopted the trend of “racebending”. Basically that means that media creators have changed the race or ethnicity of a character to make the movie more marketable or appeal to a certain demographic, race or group. It has been done in Hollywood for many years, mostly in the past to discriminate against people of colour. However, there is a new trend to discriminate positively (as in Thor) and cast black actors in white roles too.

Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor
Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor

Black actors playing historically white characters (no white face)

2011 saw the much-awaited release of the movie "Thor" by Paramount Pictures. Comic book heroes were now appearing in motion pictures in rapid succession. One of the characters in the Thor story is the gatekeeper Heimdall based on the god Heimdallr in Norse mythology. Up until the release of the movie Thor, Heimdall had been depicted in Marvel comics and in TV cartoons as a white male with a definite Nordic appearance (you know, the typical blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes). However, in the movie, Idris Elba, an African American actor, plays him. When asked by the UK’s TV Times about the role, he had this to say:

"There has been a big debate about it: can a black man play a Nordic character?" he told TV Times. "Hang about, Thor's mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That's OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong? "I was cast in Thor and I'm cast as a Nordic god," he said. "If you know anything about the Nords, they don't look like me but there you go. I think that's a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that's good."

Now you have to understand that the Thor movie only added to Elba's net worth of $12million, so he may be a little biased with his comments.

David Oyelowo as King Henry VI
David Oyelowo as King Henry VI
Me "blacked out" for Where's Waldo?
Me "blacked out" for Where's Waldo?

What about non-actors, or just plain old me?

So, back to my reason for writing this in the first place. I am still not sure whether my “blackface” disguise was right or wrong, harmless or hurtful. I know what my motives were at the time, and yet I, being white, am only able to see if from a white person’s perspective. I am able to honestly say that if a black person were to white out his face in similar circumstances I would not be offended at all. I do understand thought that my thought process does not come out of a heritage of discrimination either. As for myself, I do try to see the heart of a man rather than his outward appearance and act and react to him according to that and not exterior prejudices.

As cultural and ethnic diversity continues to grow, and media control reflects this, it will be interesting to see who plays whom in years to come. Next up – a black James Bond… you heard it here first!

What do you think about racebending in Hollywood?

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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Interesting! I was born in a racist country South Africa and was turned down jobs because of the color of my skin. A topic of debate indeed. I feel if someone is intelligent enough in their careers they should be allowed an opportunity to have what is meant for them or have that chance to move forward.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wonderful hub and interesting food for thought here. You have given some great examples of films where actors switched race roles. I wonder if similar things have happened with Asians. I remember Yul Brynner playing the King of Siam pain The King and I, and also the Mongol Ghengis Khan so I guess it does. Australian actors are always playing Americans, and a white New Zealand actor played an Australian Aboriginal detective in an old tv series "Boneyard" based on books by Arthur Upfield. Voted up.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Idris elba is a British actor, just thought I'd chip that in. Not an American :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Nice page.

      Several years ago the book "Pay it Forward." It involved a black male teacher who assigned a project to his students that encouraged random.acts of kindness. I thought a movie role for a black actor as the teacher would be great. Although I.really like Kevin Spacey who.portrayed the teacher in the movie, I must say that I.was disappointed that the teacher's race was changed.

      I recently read an article about this movie "Stuck" with Mena Suvari. She has an accident and a man is her windshield. She hides her car with the man still.there in a garage. I saw the movie some.time.ago.and was based on.a true story with a black female driver.

      This is an interesting subject. Some of Denzel.Washington''s roles.could have been done by white actors. I guess sort.of.race

      On another topic: Movies with men in drag (Tyler.Perry, Robin Williams, Martin Lawrence, Dustin Hoffman) well.

      Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a male character.

    • Tbland profile image


      5 years ago

      A black James Bond? I hope not. Well...maybe if a black Brit played the role. Then again, no, black male actor are always cast as sex crazed people. And the sex scenes are often rough ones...can you Jamie Fox(not the best looking) as bond? No, we need to create a better model first.

      Now Idris Elba, as "Luther" is a good start, but the UK television for you, the US has race issues. Maybe they are trying to fix that with "Ironside"(hahaha) with poor acting Blair Underwood at the helm...yeah ok. Underwood like Cosner is a face man, don't take my word for it; check out his career for yourself.

      As far as Hollywood's black face fetish goes my parents would be more offended than I. I think it's stupid and sometimes it pisses me off, like "White chicks" no I didn't see it I saw "Soul Man" years ago. I saw bits and pieces of "Tropic Thunder" on TV; I was more offended be the young black guy with his eyes bulging and tenor shrills than I was about Robert Downey Jr. Maybe because Robert seemed to have a little more respect for the role of a "black man"...maybe it was the director.

      Which brings us to the "Heart", what's in it? Old hollywood black face was clearly prejudice. Today, New hollywood wants to make money by any means...just as evil.

      In your case, You say, it was just for....I can only go by your words. I don't know you. But I did see from your story that there wasn't any malice. However, now ask yourself the question you asked hollywood...Why black face? Why not a wig and fake beard?

      I love the hub by the way and your writing style...

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @Careermommy - firstly, great name. Being a mom is a career in itself. Glad you enjoyed the hub. It's a subject that has always fascinated me so I thought I'd write about it. There are many schools of opinion here. My role was to just get the subject out there for discussion.

    • Careermommy profile image

      Tirralan Watkins 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Wow, what a very interesting hub. I was always intrigued with this topic since seeing "Imitation of Life," a film about a light skinned black woman passing for white. The role was given to a woman of Mexican and Jewish heritage. There was of course controversy over this. Regardless, it's one of my all time favorite movies. Great article!

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @RonElFran - thank you for that insight. In my case I was most definitely not intending to offend. It wasn't until recently that the subject pricked my conscience and I wrote this hub.

      Glad to have provoked some thinking for you. I do understand that a persons views on this matter are deeply rooted in their life experiences too.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      6 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think the acceptability of whites playing blacks or in historically black roles is all about perceived intent. Historically, the practice contributed to degrading blacks in the public mind. Also, it was used simply to deny black actors jobs. Any hint of those motivations and it would be extremely offensive. And it's important to recognize, as you do, that a "hint" that comes across loud and clear to a black person may be invisible to someone whose life experiences have not sensitized them to such issues.

      I think your mall adventure is not an issue because of context: you were not known, not discovered, and not American. In other words, if you were a well known American (say, a public official) who was shown on the evening news in blackface, you’d probably have a hard time satisfactorily explaining your motives, however pure you might consider them to be.

      These are difficult waters to navigate without shipwreck. Even now, as I was about to end by saying that this is an interesting and thought-provoking hub, I am realizing that my attitude would probably be different if it had been written by an American.

      Anyway, thanks for “an interesting and thought-provoking hub.”

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @Levertis Steele - sorry for your loss. Glad to hear you channelled that into quality time with your own family.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 

      6 years ago from Southern Clime

      "I bet you were cute as Little Bo Peep!"

      OK! That is funny. Imagine an 8-year old Black Bo Peep with 8 plaits. My dad was so proud of my performance, and he wanted to know when I would be in another play. I promised him that I would let him know as soon as I was told. Dad died in a car wreck before that happened again, but his presence that night at my school meant so much to me. I supported my children's activities, and now I try hard to be a good granny. I have a grandson who just might be an actor one day!

      Thanks again for a great read!

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @ Levertis Steele - thank you, thank you, thank you for that excellent comment. My heart with this hub was not to take either side but to et people to think about the subject matter and how society has changed in regards to these things. Then, of course, make up & CGI have advanced dramatically to the point that we don't know if what we are seeing on the screen is real or created either...

      Thanks for sharing from the point of view of a woman of colour. That input is very much appreciated. I bet you were cute as Little Bo Peep!

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 

      6 years ago from Southern Clime

      What is good acting but portraying a character well? Makeup can do wonders to help build a character. I do not see anything wrong with any person portraying any race because it is acting and sometimes interesting. Doing it on a regular basis would not be practical, though. Whether we like it or not we are anxious to see some things that go against the norm. Robin Williams, a man, played Mrs. Doubtfire, and Eddie Murphy played a Jew. Those were out of the ordinary, but interesting.

      Many people did not like Sidney Poitier's role in GUESS WHO IS COMING TO DINNER, but all eyes were on the movie, and it was a success. If a White man had played the part, the movie, although good, would not have gotten as much attention. It is all about the biggest dollar and attracting eyes, not how people feel about a race. When people cause a negative effect on the money, then, the moviemakers are likely to rethink.

      Many of those minstrel shows of long ago were designed to promote racism against Blacks, although the acting was often good. There are differences between those and Whites and Blacks today portraying each other or other races whether black-faced or not. Acting is acting. I have seen actors/actresses portray everything from fruit and animals to trees and clouds. So, I suppose they can portray other races if they look the part, are in character, and pull in the money? The money is the ultimate goal of the industry, I believe. Also, it is not unusual for moviemakers to alter portions of a book to give a movie the desired effects when the purpose is to entertain.

      When I was a girl, public schools were segregated. We performed plays, and did not have other races to play their parts, and did not require them. This never crossed our minds. Race was not an issue here. To anyone who says races should play themselves only, I say too late. Races have already played other races’ parts. When I was 3rd grade, I played a sheep in LITTLE BO PEEP, and everyone knows that Bo Peep and her sheep were White. I was not made up. I was a little Black girl playing a sheep, and race never crossed my mind. Actually, there was not anything about blacks in any books in our schools at that time. So, what is playing a White part to us? Even today most human illustrations in most textbooks are White. So, it is not surprising if some Whites have more difficulty accepting races portraying other races.

      No one wonders what Shakespeare did for a Black character when he put on Othello in the 1500’s at the Globe Theater. When it came to female character parts during the Shakespearean era, men played the parts because women were not allowed! How weird that they thought that they could do a better job of playing women! And everyone who could afford to patronize the Globe paid that penny and attended when they saw that flag flying high on the turret.

      Another interesting hub!

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @FatFreddysCat - I had considered that one too, as I am ancient and remember the! Didn't want to include too many, but thanks for reminding me.

    • FatFreddysCat profile image

      Keith Abt 

      6 years ago from The Garden State

      How'bout the '80s comedy "Soul Man" with C. Thomas Howell as a white kid who wears black face in order to get a minority scholarship to college?? Terrible film even in its day.

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @Lisa Wilton - I think I agree with you about casting people who match the character historically and also about the job done by Idris Elba. It wasn't until I delved into this subject that I even considered him not looking Nordic. Thanks for the great comment.

    • Lisa Wilton profile image


      6 years ago from Bristol, United Kingdom

      I find this hub really interesting. I hadn't really thought about how I feel about it until I read this. I remember watching Tropic Thunder and thinking it was just silly to have a white man play a black man. I didn't get that at all. But, in contrast, I thought Idris Elba was perfectly brilliant in Thor. I think when it comes to mythical characters maybe I'm more willing to bend the rules a bit.

      I do think, though, that if someone is playing a true life character, the race of the actor or actress should match as far as possible to the role. (There might be races of people that don't actually exist any more - I'm thinking races that have been wiped out here.) BUT, and I'm going to say something controversial here, Jesus is ALWAYS played by caucasian men and I'm pretty sure he wasn't caucasian. (I might get a barrage of abuse for that one but anyhow, it's my opinion...)

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @Mitch Alan - some excellent feedback here. I'm really just putting the question/situation out there to see what people's opinions are. You have voiced yours very astutely indeed.

    • Mitch Alan profile image

      Mitch Alan 

      6 years ago from South Jersey

      First, the producers of the films or tv shows should be the only people making the decision. If they think it makes economic sense to cast a one-legged bald female asian midget in the role of George Washington, that is their choice, as it is their capital investment or time, money etc. It would probably be dumb move from a financial standpoint, but it would still be their choice and no one elses.

      In the case of the Wayan brothers film, that is similar to the classic movie "Some Like It Hot" where the lead characters dress as is a plot device that it the basis for the story.

      The cases where a white/black plays the part of a historically black/white figure is a little different. If it is a real person, then this would most likely be done because those producing the film either thought the "opposite" colored person was a better actor and it made sense to cast then or they thought the "media" hype would be good for ticket sales...either is a reasonable reason. If it is a well known fictional character then there is no issue, as long as the original author has no issues (if applicable).

      Remember that all characters in the original plays of Shakespeare were played by men...

      At the end of the day the only people making this choice should be those in charge; those who hold the purse strings. And, we need to see past the surface.

    • petenali profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I guess the question in acting is, "what makes someone the best?" Is it there memory of lines, their ability to make it look real, or the way they re-create the character they are portraying (visually as well)? Maybe some people are simply not qualified to do certain jobs. You won't see too many males in auditions for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit modelling tryouts!

    • MarieAlana1 profile image

      Marie Alana 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      This is yet another interesting hub. It is a civil right for the best person for the job to be able to get the job. Hence, the creation of the Better Business Bureaus. So, shouldn't it be the same in the acting world.


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