There’s a brilliant moment in Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show, Master of None, where Ansari’s character realizes that his shining example of an Indian lead actor in a Hollywood film (1988’s Short Circuit 2) is actually a white actor named Fisher Stevens in brownface.
In a thoughtful follow-up in The New York Times, Ansari calls Stevens up and engages him in conversation about that eighties film, its role in Ansari’s childhood imagination and broader trends in race and casting in the present-day American film industry.
It was an especially relevant conversation in 2015. As Ansari says in the Times article, only 16.7 percent of film lead roles went to minorities in 2013. And while this year saw some definitive casting triumphs, it also gave us some disheartening moments when Hollywood stumbled in ways we’d have hoped were a thing of the past. Here, we’ve compiled a list of the year’s 10 loudest casting controversies.
1. Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha (May 27, 2015) In Aloha, Emma Stone plays Allison Ng, a woman who is a quarter Chinese and a quarter Hawaiian. Stone is, notably, neither Chinese nor Hawaiian. The controversy around the casting, she said, led her to learn “on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood.”
2. Tom Holland as Spider-Man (announced June 2015) In comic books, one popular version of Spider-Man for the past 15 years has been a half-black, half-Hispanic young man named Miles Morales. Still, in reboot after reboot, filmmakers have stuck with Peter Parker and a series of white guy actors: Tobey McGuire, Andrew Garfield and now, for Spidey’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Holland. Since none of the recent Spider-Man movies has been particularly good, you’d think they might want to switch things up.
3. Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four (August 7, 2015) Johnny Storm, the Human Torch in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original comic, is white. Some fans, astutely noting that Michael B. Jordan is black, protested that he couldn’t properly portray the character. There was a special outrage because Johnny’s sister Sue, the Invisible Woman, was played by Kate Mara, who is white, and apparently adopted siblings don’t count as real siblings, or something. As it turned out, Jordan did fine as Johnny, though the movie was so underwhelming that it remains an open question whether he’ll get to reprise the role.
4. Casting Call for Straight Outta Compton (August 14, 2015) Straight Outta Compton didn’t whitewash any of its main characters, but it did manage to put out a flatly offensive casting call. Sande Alessi Casting posted a request on social media boards for four categories of actors: A, B, C, and D girls. ‘A’ girls were supposed to be super hot — and light-skinned. ‘D’ girls were “Poor, not in good shape. Medium-to-dark skin tone.” The casting call was a reminder of who, in Hollywood, is considered attractive and who isn’t.
5. Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall (September 18, 2015) Roland Emmerich decided to center his film about 1969’s Stonewall riots around a fictional, Midwestern cis gay white man played by Jeremy Irvine. The riots, which launched the gay rights movement, were led in large part by transgender people, people of color and transgender people of color. In response to Emmerich’s choice of protagonist, much of the LGBT community spoke up to say that they were sick of those folks being written out of history. In this case, the filmmaker’s choices alienated the very audiences he needed for buzz and support, and contributed to the movie’s catastrophic flop – both critically and commercially.
6. Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park in The Martian (October 2, 2015) Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus turned everyone in Egypt into a Caucasian. As a follow-up, this year’s The Martian whitened the character of Mindy Park, who’s Korean American in Andy Weir’s novel that the film was based on; in the movie, she’s played by white actress Mackenzie Davis. Scott also race-swapped the character of Venkat Kapoor, who is Indian in the book, but played by black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film. “So few projects are written specifically with Asian American characters in them, and he’s now changed them to a white woman and black man,” said Guy Aioki, founding president of the Media Action Network For Asian Americans, in an October press release. “This was a great opportunity to give meaty roles to talented Asian American actors – and boost their careers.”
7. Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan (October 9, 2015) Rooney Mara, a white actress, insisted it was okay for her to play Tiger Lily in Pan because "They are natives of Neverland, a completely made-up place.” A completely made-up place in which all the stars happen to be white. Convenient, that.
8. Almost the Entire Cast of Gods of Egypt (November 2015 trailer) In the great white tradition of Exodus, the trailer for Gods of Egypt daringly imagines a past in which the banks of the Nile teemed with pale people. Exodus was a giant box office flop as well as a critical dud, so you’d think they would want to try something different. But nope; 50 years after The Ten Commandments, Hollywood still isn’t ready to acknowledge that the people in the ancient Middle East did not have Charlton Heston’s skin tone.
9. Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (November 27, 2015) Director Tom Hooper cast cis actor Eddie Redmayne as trans woman Lili Elbe. Hooper says he was open to anyone on the gender “spectrum” playing the role. But the pushback was because when casting directors are open to anyone, what that tends to mean in practice is that they get… well, someone like Eddie Redmayne. In Hollywood, traditionally trans women have almost always been played by cis guys — and then those cis guys often receive effusive accolades for their performances, as Jared Leto did for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. It’d be nice if the big screen took a page from television shows like Orange is the New Black and Sense8, and started to give trans women actors a paycheck when trans women’s stories are told onscreen.
10. John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (December 18, 2015) Some Star Wars fans were cranky because they thought (without much justification) that all storm troopers are white guy clones, and John Boyega, playing a former storm trooper in the new film, is black. The whole idea that the cobbled-together Star Wars universe should be consistent is preposterous in itself. Fans will just have to “get used to it,” as Boyega himself said. Fortunately, judging by the excitement around the new film, that’s what they appear to be doing.