Cinema, much like the world it represents, has its own memory. Ever since the early days of the craft, filmmakers around the globe have been chasing stories from distant places, fascinated by historical and mythical characters, recording and reconstructing their lives, achievements, and contributions, all to the delight of movie-going masses.
Hollywood has evolved into a well-oiled machine, a mammoth producing stories widely accepted and consumed by large audiences, with an equal taste for exotic tales or historical narratives. Appropriation from earlier works in other genres is common, and often productive, for filmmaking. However, the content of some of these films doesn’t always correspond to what´s written in history books, and in some cases it changes completely, when practices like whitewashing take place, as historically non-white characters are portrayed by white actors.
A scandal relating to whitewashing was unleashed this year as the producers of a new biopic about 13th century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī announced their intentions to cast American actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of the Sufi scholar. Sources close to the Oscar-award winning actor have already stated that DiCaprio will not pursue the project, but the scandal brought the world to reflect, yet again, on the state of the visual archive Hollywood filmmakers leave behind for generations to come.
The causes of this problem are clear: institutional racism, the desire to maximise profits and attract the public by choosing white and well-known actors, in a now established cult of celebrity. However, the issue also lies with the fact that these products are designed and produced for audiences that are sure to consume them, feeding a vicious circle that limits creativity. It is remarkable that Hollywood is interested in historical figures and seeks to create contemporary representations of them for younger, and harder to impress audiences, but is this a way to further the dialogue between cultures? As we want to confirm our expectations about a specific subject, are we allowing filmmakers of the world to tell these stories differently and apply culturally comfortable filters to history as it happened? Sometimes, instead of presenting and reviving history, filmmakers craft pieces that make culture look rather recreational, under the questionable claim of documenting or representing true events.
Are we sacrificing well-informed content and credible profiles for special effects and recognisable faces? Undoubtedly, there is a persistent issue of under-represented minorities in the Western film industry, and it is made apparent through whitewashing. There’s an uncomfortable silence about this topic in Hollywood, but we must remember that we, as consumers, are also responsible for it, and in a way, we need to responsibly decide to look beyond the surface of the glamorised representations we are offered.
A good story can change the world, and mankind is always searching for them. Mevlana, another name for the Persian poet Rumi, also wrote about this in his poem Mesnevi. The beauty of the best crafted films, as well as of the best works of literature, lies in the universality and timelessness of their message. Let these stories be instruments that bring us together, in order to create a more truthful account of our history: that of the beautiful diversity of the world, and the unity that ideas provide in a moment when mankind is in desperate need for wisdom.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu