Hollywood Racism: A Tale as Old as the Movies


Scarlett Johansson playing Major Moto Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell is just the most recent example of Hollywood casting a white actor instead of somebody with the same ethnicity as the original character. It’s only been a few months since the Oscars and Chris Rock hilariously lampooned the “All-White Oscars” and the lack of diversity among the award nominees, but here we go again. Prepare to turn your outrage dial up to 11.

Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Anime version of Major Moto Kusanagi

One would think that Hollywood in 2016 would be more representative of the nation’s color palette as a whole. The national census recognizes six ethnic and racial categories:

  1. White American (77%)
  2. Black American or African American (14%)
  3. Native American and Alaska American (<1%)
  4. Asian American (6%)
  5. Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (<1%)
  6. People of one or more of the above called “some other race” (2%)

Hollywood is a business first, of course. This is the filmmaking industry, after all. It makes some sense that you might make more films for the bulk of your potential audience versus making films for, say, the 0.8% of Native American and Alaska Americans who still live in the United States. Despite this, Nanook of the North (1922) is still a great movie.

Having said that, when it comes to casting a white, albeit popular actress like Johansson to play a Japanese character like Kusanagi, the unintended effect can be quite jarring to a fan-based audience, or indeed, to any intelligent viewer. Playing a super-spy with red hair and faking a Russian accent is one thing, playing a female Japanese-born cyborg is quite another.

Hollywood’s Long History of Casting White Actors in Black or Ethnic Roles

Johansson’s casting as Kusanagi is not the first time Hollywood ever put a famous white face into a movie playing a non-white character. There’s actually quite a shameful and sometimes, unintentionally hilarious history of this type of casting. You’d just think that in 2016, we might be beyond all these shenanigans.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

One of the earliest silent epics, Birth of a Nation made a huge impact on America’s national psyche in 1915. Directed and co-produced by D.W. Griffith, the movie was an adaption of Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansmen. It should be noted at this point in the discussion, that the general populace in 1915 had very different impression of cone headed white guys in hoods burning crosses.

Wait! These are the good guys?

The film was over two hours long and found commercial success, but has properly come in for major criticism around its portrayal of black people. Many of the “black people” in the film are actually white actors in black face who are repeatedly portrayed as unintelligent, sub-human and sexually aggressive to white women. Black people at the time of release did protest the movie. For example, in Boston MA, many black people protested the film while it was playing at theaters. Still, many many whites in those areas continued to go see the film. The NAACP launched a campaign to ban the film entirely, but failed.

Stung by the critical reception of his opus, director D.W. Griffith was so infuriated that he went on to make Intolerance a year later. How’s that for a hissy fit?

The worst Black and White Minstrel Show Ever
Nobody in this photo from Birth of a Nation is actually black, of course

The Jazz Singer (1927)

From one of cinema’s first blockbusters to its first talkie. Whites playing non-white characters permeate Hollywood history.

The Jazz Singer was the first feature-length movie to synchronize dialogue with the picture playing onscreen. The film would usher in a new technological era called “talkies” that would come to replace the silent movies of old. Despite this new technology being employed, old fashioned racism still prevailed.

The film tells the story of a young Jewish man, Jakie Robinowitz, played by Al Jolson, who defies his family’s religious objections to become the titular jazz singer. He launches his career as an entertainer, part of which involves him taking to the stage in blackface in an old black and white Minstrels’ routine. The film is famous for its musical number, “My Mammy” which Olson croons in the final scene.


Dragon Seed (1944)

Katherine Hepburn donned prosthetic eyelids to play the role of Jade Tan, the main female character in Dragon Seed. In fact, there’s a “Who’s that?” of faux-Chinese characters plaguing the movie from Walter Huston as Ling Tan, Aline MacMahon as Ling’s Wife, Akim Tamaroff as Wu Lien and many others.

Jade warrior

Hepburn plays the young heroic Chinese woman who leads her village to rise up against their Japanese invaders. She spends the entire movie heavily made up to appear to be Chinese.

The Conquerer (1956)

In 1956, John Wayne made two movies. One would come to be the defining movie of his career, starring in John Ford’s The Searchers. The other one had him playing Ghengis Khan. Yeah, you read that right. Kh-a-a-a-n!


The Conquerer was directed by Dick Powell, who had previously starred in musicals in the 1930s and was typecast as a private eye before bringing us this historical travesty. In 1956, he directed John Wayne in The Conquerer, a film that literally may have killed Wayne because he and several other people involved with the film contracted cancer while filming near a nuclear test site in Utah.

John Wayne plays the infamous Mongol chief Temujin, aka Ghengis Khan, battling against the Tartars and for the love of the Tartar princess, Bortai. The film sheepishly boasts a 3.4/10 on the IMDB.

50 Shades of Racism

You know, there’s really nothing quite so hilarious as watching Wayne, with his trademark accent, drawl dialog supposedly said by the Khan of Khans. Watch here:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Who would have thought that a film based on the book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by that most eccentric of writers Truman Capote – would be partially remembered for one of the most racist portrayals in contemporary cinema. At the time the film was made, in the early 1960’s, there were plenty of Japanese American actors who could have played the part of I.Y. Yunioshi, the ornery neighbor who lives upstairs – but no, said Hollywood, why not cast Micky Rooney?


For those too young to remember Mickey Rooney, he was a regular playing opposite Judy Garland in musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. This role was a departure for Mr Rooney, in every sense, especially good taste. The New York Times review stated bluntly, “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic”. That’s putting it mildly. The Boston Globe was rather more matter-of-fact, describing the portrayal as “an irascible bucktoothed nerd and an offensive ethnic caricature”. Precisely.

It’s worth quoting the following in full from Wikipedia:

“More recent characterizations include “cringe-inducing stereotype”,[4] “painful, misguided”,[5] “overtly racist”,[6] “inexcusable case of yellowface”,[7] “one of the most egregiously horrible ‘comic’ impersonations of an Asian (Mr. Yunioshi) in the history of movies”,[8] and a portrayal “border[ing] on offensive” that is a “double blow to the Asian community – not only is he fatuous and uncomplimentary, but he is played by a Caucasian actor in heavy makeup.””

At least Johansson isn’t going “full Rooney”. Right?

Othello (1965)

“You can’t be more classy than Olivier,” says the gang in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a reference to the time Lawrence Olivier put on black face to play Othello.

Considering it was 1965, a year after the Civil Right Act was passed, a time when America was supposedly become more sensitive to issues of race, it’s pretty amazing that Hollywood decided to let Olivier go and put on black face. What’s more, for playing “The Moor,” Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award. He didn’t win.

Still, not everybody was thrilled at Olivier’s performance in Othello. Columnist Inez Robb compared Olivier to Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer.

This Moor has a secret

You Only Live Twice (1967) (dishonorable mention)

The 5th outing for Connery as British super spy James Bond gets a mention here because of the painful attempt to make Bond look Japanese. This isn’t a case of a Caucasian actor playing the role of a Japanese person, but rather it’s a case of a white actor playing the part of a white person who gets cosmetic surgery to look Japanese. Regardless, it’s still in rather poor taste and downright laughable.

The fact that Connery is 6′ 2″ and towers above all the other real-world Japanese actors cast with him in the movie means that the attempt to pass him off as Japanese within the context of the logic of the plot – completely ridiculous. I frankly can’t believe Mike Meyers didn’t mine this concept for his Austin Powers’ movies before they crapped out.

Sean Connery pretends to be turning Japanese, I really think so.
Bond-san. James Bond-san.

The Bond transformation to James Bond-san is pretty hilarious for just how unbelievable it is. If you want to see the “transformation” yourself, skip to 2:30 on the YouTube video below. In point of fact, Connery makes a more convincing Vulcan than he does an Asian.

Some other recent examples of white actresses playing non-white characters or real life persons, includes:

  • Mena Suvari in Stuck the retelling of a black woman, Chante Mallard, who was involved in a hit-and-run incident where a homeless man was left to die in her windshield after she drove home. For the part, Suvari, who is white, actually sported corn rows.
  • In the film, Pay It Forward, Kevin Spacey plays the role of the teacher Eugene Simonet. In the book, this character was a black man called Reuben St. Clair. Apparently, Denzel Washington was asked to take the part but when he passed on it, Hollywood ran out of black men to ask to audition.

So, in summary, Scarlett Johannson’s current outing playing a Japanese cyborg in Ghost in the Shell isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s rather been the Hollywood norm over the years since the film industry first started. The big difference today is, America’s ethnic composition and cultural sensitivity has changed. If you’re telling me you can’t find a Japanese American actress to play the role of Major Moto Kusanagi, I’d say you just haven’t looked hard enough.


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