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#RumiWasntWhite - Hollywood Continues to Whitewash Films

posted on: Jun 13, 2016

#RumiWasntWhite-Hollywood Continues to Whitewash Arabs and Persians out of Films

BY: Clara Ana Ruplinger/Contributing Writer

Recent news sources say that the writer of the box office hit film, The Gladiator, David Franzoni, wants to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi, and Robert Downey Jr. as Shams of Tabriz, Rumi’s mentor. This line up of actors were selected for an upcoming film about the Iranian poet’s life. This has sparked nation-wide conversations about “whitewashing” in the film industry.

Jalaluddin al-Rumi was a Sufi Mystic poet of the Thirteenth century. He was a Persian (or modern day Iranian), and a Muslim, as was Shams of Tabriz. People went to social media to criticize the filmmaker and his desire to cast two white actors to play the role of Iranians, despite the fact that there are many capable Iranian actors in both Hollywood and Iran.

Whitewashing is not a new issue, especially for Arab Americans. The number of prominent Arab figures that have been whitewashed in the media is appalling, particularly when it comes to biblical stories and stories about ancient Egypt.

In Gods of Egypt, director Chadwick Boseman chose Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Danish), Gerard Butler (Scottish), and Breton Thwaites (Australian) to portray the three main characters in this movie about Egyptians. Although the film was based in Egypt, none of the leading actors were of Arab or African descent. Boseman himself agreed with this critique, but said “people don’t make $140 million movies starring black and brown people,” which is indicative of the systemic racism still present in mainstream America.

In Son of God, the role of Jesus Christ was portrayed by Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese actor, despite the fact that the historical Jesus was born in Bethlehem (or modern day Palestine). Thus, the biblical figure was likely to be of Arab descent.

The same criticism came with the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings, where Moses (Christian Bale), Joshua (Aaron Paul), and Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) were also played by white actors, despite the fact that the plot was based in Egypt. Director Ridley Scott’s response to why he chose white actors instead of Arab ones was very similar to that of Coster-Waldau.

Frankly, he said that he didn’t even consider casting non-white actors for the film because he can’t “mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even exist.”

While budgetary issues are often cited as a reason not to cast actors who are racial or ethnic minorities in the U.S., these responses show deeper issues within Hollywood culture, and the role race plays in the lives of Hollywood directors.

This phenomenon is in stark contrast to the number of Arabs playing terrorists or villains in Hollywood production.

In Iron Man, Arab American actor Sayed Badreya played an Arab arms dealer who kidnaps the hero, played by Robert Downey Jr. Sayed Badreya has been acting in prominent films for nearly 20 years, but almost always as a villain or a terrorist. Robert Downey Jr. has had a far more diverse spectrum of roles.

Homeland, American Sniper, 24 and many more American television shows and movies where Arabs are solely depicted as terrorists, greatly contributes to stereotypes surrounding Arabs in U.S. society. These stereotypes have real consequences for Arab Americans, as they incite hate crimes, harassment, and other vicious treatment.

If you would like to help protest this new attempt by Hollywood to whitewash Rumi, click here to sign a petition and make your voice heard on this issue. Taking the time to sign it will send a strong message to Hollywood that we won’t stand for white washing anymore.