Hollywood, We Have a Problem

Christian Bale, Maria Valverde and Ridley Scott pose for photographers during the premiere of the film 'Exodus' in Madrid, on
Christian Bale, Maria Valverde and Ridley Scott pose for photographers during the premiere of the film 'Exodus' in Madrid, on Thursday Dec. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Abraham Caro Marin)

Hollywood, we have a problem. Once again the issue of whitewashing has reared its ugly head in the form of Scarlett Johansson being cast as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in the remake of the Japanese anime film "Ghost in the Shell." This latest episode follows Rupert Murdoch's unabashed support of "Exodus," a whitewashed treatment of biblical events by director Ridley Scott. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are," Murdoch recently tweeted.

This and countless other Hollywood examples represent old messages to blacks and other people of color that at the end of the day, we can never be central characters. We are nothing more than historical footnotes: This is a white world where the most significant contributions to civilization have been made by white people, and we simply must accept that.

To be sure, Scott insisted this is not about race but economics: When asked why he cast so many white actors in a film based in Ancient Egypt, Ridley responded "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."

What Hollywood insiders fail to understand is employing predominantly white actors is not simply about economic expediency. It is about attempting to maintain historical accuracy. After all, the consumption of movies, especially epic period pieces like "Ben-Hur," "The Ten Commandments," "Spartacus" and "Gone with the Wind" are considered cinematic classics etched in public consciousness. While not considered a classic (except perhaps in Quentin Tarantino's mind), concerns about accuracy were one of many critiques made about 2012's "Django Unchained," Tarantino's highest-grossing film to date. What was more disturbing, especially for me and other black psychologists, was the psychological impact of the oft light-hearted portrayal of slavery, and uncritical consumption by many moviegoers, especially black ones.

Concerns about whitewashing is about more than scoring diversity points. Portraying history accurately is important for ensuring a minimal level of historical literacy and cultural competency among citizens. Less acknowledged but equally important, accuracy is important for the psychology and collective consciousness of people, especially those who have been historically marginalized, under-represented and devalued.

According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Asian-Americans were cast in only 2 percent of roles that were not racially specific, compared with 4 percent for Latinos and 13 percent for African Americans. Imagine how Asian-Americans must feel knowing they can't even be employed as actors in their own films.

For African-Americans, the lack of representation has been especially painful because of well-documented attempts to minimize or deny our historical contributions. In "My Life in Search of Africa," the late African-American scholar John Henrik Clarke talked about his love of history and how he learned Europeans had colonized history to the point that even the image of God was a white man. Clarke said, 'I could not find the image of my people in the Bible, so I began the search through the literature of the world until I found them and learned why some people considered it a necessity to leave African people out of the respectful commentary of history."

Clarke was more concerned about its psychological impact on black people and people of color. What is the psychological impact of always seeing white images as the only central historical figures of civilization? We know from the 1940s Clark doll studies that when asked to choose the "nice" doll and the one they liked the best, black children disproportionately chose the white one. When asked to choose the doll that looks "bad," black children were more likely to choose the black one. This study has been replicated recently with similar results.

I can tell you from years of college teaching the impact of always seeing white images is one where black students become socialized to thinking their history is one that, as Murdoch suggested, blacks were nothing more than slaves in the annals of history before becoming freed by good white people.

"Exodus" is culturally important because ancient Egypt has long been the subject of debate in the culture wars between multiculturalists, Afrocentrists and traditionalists, especially regarding the racial identity of significant historical figures. As a black psychologist, my perspective concerns why these issues of racial identity are so important for blacks and other people of color. It's because we have long been inundated with messages that we have not made any significant contributions to history, and the sum total of our existence is in reaction to being oppressed by white people. Or as argued by certain Afrocentric scholars, black people are always objects rather than subjects of human history.

Philosopher David Hume famously said, "I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences." This sentiment was, and I believe still is, the shared sentiment among many individuals.

So it should not be a surprise when black folks and other folks of color cry foul when movies like "Ghost in the Shell" are whitewashed. After all, we were expected to believe Charlton Heston's portrayal of Moses in " The Ten Commandments" was historically accurate. But any depiction of historical figures that erases the presence and contribution of people of color perpetuates a narrative of white supremacy and the inferiority of people of color. If the movie "Lincoln" had portrayed Abraham Lincoln as an Asian or black man, people would be up in arms.

We should be concerned about the impact of Hollywood's continual whitewashing on the collective psychology of people of color and it should be of concern for any educated person who wants to have an accurate understanding and depiction of history.