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Race-Switching in Movies: Is it Okay?

Race is a tricky subject in movies. Whenever a movie comes out that even comes close to tackling issues of race, controversy is bound to follow it. Just look at The Help, this month’s breakout Disney hit that looks at the treatment of black housemaids in the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights struggle. Audiences are loving it, but backlash against the film is very strong. Some object to the way the film portrays these maids, others to the way the film couples their struggle with the coming-of-age story of a young white girl.

And that’s just one example. Go back to 2009 and the backlash surrounding The Blind Side for another. But the thing I find curious is that in all this hubbub over The Help, another issue of race at the movies is going largely unmentioned.

Zoe Saldana, star of action hits like Avatar and Star Trek, headlines Colombiana, an action thriller out this Friday. What’s controversial about that, you ask? Well, the film is about a young Colombian woman out for revenge. And Saldana, as most of you probably know, is not Colombian. In fact, she’s an American-born half Dominican, half Puerto Rican.


I guess this shouldn’t be called an “issue,” but isn’t it a little curious? Were there no young, hot Colombian actresses that could have played this role? Or could there have been a simple rewrite to make the character’s origins match that of the actress? 

But this isn’t the first case of race-switching at the movies, and it won’t be the last. Here are some of the most famous (and infamous):


Natalie Wood, West Side Story
Even if you haven’t seen the Oscar-winning 1961 version of the classic musical, you probably know the story. The Jets and the Sharks are two rival New York gangs. One is primarily white American, the other Puerto Rican immigrants. Wood plays Maria, the sister of the Puerto Rican gang’s leader. Now, Wood’s birth name was actually Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, which believe it or not, is not Puerto Rican. The strangest part of this whole thing? Not only was Wood playing a different race, but she also couldn’t sing; Her songs needed to be dubbed. 


Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart

This one makes the list because, unlike the others, there was good reason to cast against race. You see, Jolie might not seem like the perfect fit to play Marianne Pearl, the mixed-race (she has Dutch, Jewish, African, Chinese and Cuban blood) wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. But she and Marianne were extremely close, and Marianne insisted to director Michael Winterbottom that Jolie portray her. The result? Jolie’s finest performance to date.


Dominic Cooper, The Devil’s Double

Out in limited release right now, incidentally, The Devil’s Double tells the story of a man (Cooper) who agrees to be the body double for Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son. If you’re unfamiliar with Cooper, check him out An Education, or Captain America: The First Avenger. Just don’t expect him to look like an Iraqi; he’s just your average dreamy British guy.

Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
OK, a bit of a cheat. Downey didn’t actually play a different race. As his character so brilliantly puts it: “I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude.” An American actor plays an Australian actor who plays a black soldier. Sounds confusing, but the guy was nominated for an Oscar. He was also freaking hilarious.


The entire cast of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Not a single Persian in the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal: American; Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley: British; Alfred Molina: British, but of Italian and Spanish descent. Dumb casting, dumb movie.

Al Pacino, Scarface

One of the most infamous race-crossing portrayals has to be Al Pacino in the titular role in Scarface, a story of a Cuban immigrant’s rise to glory via the drug world. In case you were wondering, Pacino is an Italian-American. In fact, many of the cast members were not Cuban but actually Italian-Americans as well. There’s no denying, however, that Pacino’s performance was a tour-de-force and might alone be proof enough that crossing ethnic boundaries should be warranted if not encouraged.

There are also dozens of examples of characters from comic books or some other medium changing race during the transition to the silver screen. Felix Leiter became African-American during James Bond’s four-year hiatus between Die Another Day and Casino Royale. Thor featured a black Asgardian (Idris Elba). And there was lots of talk online last year about Donald Glover taking over as Spider-Man (a role that went to Andrew Garfield).

What’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure. There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing a race other than your own, as long as it’s a respectful portrayal. It’s an odd trend, though. With tens of thousands of people trying to make it in acting, couldn’t they have dug just a little deeper to find someone who fit the role more closely? But as long as Colombiana is good, there’s probably no sense complaining. 






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