Scarlett Johansson's Rub and Tug row reveals Hollywood's problematic streak with straight-washing and whitewashing

Gautam Chintamani

July 29, 2018 11:24:18 IST

Only a few years ago, the news of Scarlett Johansson signing Rub and Tug, a film that would feature her as a transgender man would automatically assure her of great glory, ravishing reviews, and even a possible Oscar nomination. Along with that, the reports of backlash from the within the community or the trans-actors that could possibly portray the character would be highlighted but the chances of any actor actually reconsidering their decision would be very slim. In Hollywood of yore, such reactions would be welcomed as they helped generate curiosity. Although most of this could happen now as well but for some reason, actors, today, seem to take a certain kind of backlash seriously enough to walk away from projects that could change the course of their careers. Following adverse reaction from the trans community, Johansson announced her exit from Rub and Tug and even apologised for her “insensitive” initial statement about her casting, where her representative apparently said that those questioning her casting could ask “Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment,” highlighting how other cis-gender actors have played transgender roles.

Scarlett Johansson withdrew from the film Rub & Tug, after receiving backlash for for being cast as a transgender man. Image via Twitter

Scarlett Johansson withdrew from the film Rub & Tug, after receiving backlash for for being cast as a transgender man. Image via Twitter

This is not the first time that Johansson found herself in the centre of a casting controversy; much to the chagrin of fans and audiences from across the globe, Johansson was cast as a Japanese character in the live-action remake of the cult anime Ghost in the Shell in 2016. When it comes to popular cinema, there are far too many instances of casting decisions that can be termed downright bizarre. Strange as they might be, at times, such casting risks end up working out for the better such as the 5’ 6” Margot Robbie being cast as 5’ 1” disgraced US figure skating champ Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, where the height difference the two was least of the concerns, but what is shocking is that someone could actually come up with such ideas. Priyanka Chopra as the Manipuri boxing legend Mary Kom, Emma Stone as an Asian-Hawaiian in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Native American sidekick in The Lone Ranger or Tom Cruise portraying Jack Reacher. who has been described by his creator, author Lee Child, as a 6’ 5”, 250-lbs veteran with a 50-inch chest.

Hollywood has for long been accused of whitewashing and while now there is at least an effort to be authentic, back in the day such casting decisions were rarely questioned. When Richard Attenborough was on the lookout for the male lead for his magnum opus Gandhi (1982), there were murmurs of Dustin Hoffman being considered alongside an Anthony Hopkins, who reportedly lost nearly 20 kgs to convince Attenborough that he could play the ‘naked fakir.’ It’s not like there wasn’t any Indian in the reckoning; Attenborough had flown Naseeruddin Shah to the UK for advanced auditions but in his autobiography, And Then One Day, Shah writes -  “I later deducted that Ben [Kingsley] had in fact already been cast as Gandhi and this whole process of tom-tomming all of us being tested and sneaking the news to the press in India that I had been chosen was a masquerade conducted to pre-empt objections that inevitably would have arisen if a white actor were announced straightway.”

One can’t squarely blame Attenborough as there was a notorious tradition in the west where a white actor routinely played someone who wasn't white. The Sheik (1921) featured Rudolph Valentino playing the eponymous sheik, an Arab character named Ahmed Ben Hassan and an Indian prince brought to the United States as a boy to escape a coup in kingdom in The Young Rajah (1922); Douglas Fairbanks famously played a Baghdadi in The Thief of Baghdad (1924); and what’s more The Jazz Singer (1927) had a white actor, Al Jolson, playing the lead role in blackface. In fact, in the 1960s when Attenborough began his research for Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru reportedly felt a certain Alec Guinness would be the ideal choice to play Gandhi. He felt there was not enough cinematic experience amongst Indian actors in the style of Western cinema. Guinness had just played a Japanese businessman in A Majority of One (1961) and later in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Guinness went on to play the Arab Prince Faisal and finally in David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984), he played an Indian called Professor Godbole.

Sir Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. Image via Twitter

Sir Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. Image via Twitter

It’s not like there haven’t been instances when casting calls have defied convention. The idea of Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007) pushed the envelope but such instances are rare and most seem insensitive — Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) featured an American woman, Linda Hunt, playing Billy Kwan, an Australian-Chinese photojournalist with dwarfism. For both Hollywood and Bollywood, nearly all of the casting decisions centre on the ‘star’ factor and that is why Akshay Kumar plays Arunachalam Muruganantham in Pad Man (2018) or Shah Rukh Khan transforms into a character inspired by Mir Ranjan Negi in Chak De! India (2007) as it helps the film attract a wider audience.

The question then remains how much of realism you’d like as that often means reduced budgets. Ridley Scott once famously said, “I 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.” The film he was talking about was Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) and featured Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn and Sigourney Weaver all playing Egyptians! It’s because of this then that it becomes easy for studios to get over the predicament of Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom or Scarlett Johansson playing Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a real life crime kingpin who was born a woman but identified as male.

Updated Date: Jul 29, 2018 11:29 AM