Leonardo DiCaprio has played many memorable roles in his career: reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass, F. Scott Fitzgerald protagonist Jay Gatsby. Next ... 13th-century poet Rumi?
Filmmakers behind an upcoming Rumi biopic drew backlash earlier this week by suggesting to The Guardian that DiCaprio would be a desirable choice to play the Persian poet.
DiCaprio has not been cast as Rumi, a Muslim theologian and Sufi mystic. The biopic, which will be written by "Gladiator" screenwriter David Franzoni, is not yet at the casting stage of development, according to The Guardian. That didn't stop Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown from floating a couple possibilities to The Guardian's Kareem Shaheen, who reported that the filmmakers "would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, and Robert Downey Jr. to star as [Persian mystic] Shams of Tabriz."
Brown stated, "This is the level of casting that we’re talking about."
Wow! What a level of casting! Two very white, very non-Persian men -- a strong show of non-commitment to diversity in casting and accuracy in portraying Rumi's life.
As risk-averse as moviemakers are these days, a big-budget biopic with major studio support is exactly the kind of film that doesn't require a cast with major name-recognition to pull audiences. It's a star-making opportunity, a chance to cast some lesser-known talents and make their names.
Needless to say, many reacted with outrage to the proposed casting of two white men as renowned Persian historical figures -- the tweets and think pieces flew:
Then, Twitter made things worse.
On Wednesday, the social media platform, or one of its partners, gathered tweets on the controversy into a "Moment," to which it gave a clicky headline. (It's unclear who created the collection; though some media partners generate Moments on Twitter, many of them are created by Twitter itself.)
No. Twitter, come on, now.
This is not a debate with two sides, one side of which is "bold casting" and the other side of which is "white-washing." It's definitely white-washing -- it's pretty much the dictionary definition of it -- leaving the only thing to debate the reason two Hollywood industry players felt it wise or acceptable to discuss casting white actors as people of color.
Is that reason "boldness"? Twitter's Moment summary implies so, saying that "Franzoni said he wants to challenge stereotypes by casting Leonardo DiCaprio as the Muslim scholar." To be fair to Franzoni, even he didn't make such an absurdly causal claim -- he told The Guardian that he wanted to challenge Muslim stereotypes in the script and, separately, that he'd like to cast DiCaprio. In the Moment's framing, we're asked to consider the possibility that casting a white American star as a historically significant Persian Muslim poet would, in itself, be a bold challenge to stereotypes. This isn't just an absurd statement (white-washing a Middle Eastern figure in a Hollywood movie is the most obvious and tired choice ever); it's offensive, carrying a bizarre insinuation that we must see Muslims as blonde, white Americans to break down the stereotypes surrounding them.
Reactions to this particular Hollywood gossip item carried a whiff of exhaustion and bafflement. Hasn't this been discussed to death? Didn't "Aloha" and "Nina" flop after very public criticism of the films' failure to cast actors who reflected the true racial identities and appearances of their characters? Didn't we already go through the problems with casting white people as Middle Eastern heroes, beat-by-beat, with "Gods of Egypt" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings"? The rise of call-out culture and social media campaigns around Hollywood's diversity problem seemed to be finally raising real widespread awareness of the problem, and maybe even making it impossible for movie moguls to ignore.
Maybe what was so disheartening about that Twitter Moment was seeing how quickly all that hard work by audiences to see themselves represented onscreen could be flipped on its head and turned into the conventional wisdom that studios "boldly" push against. Once, casting DiCaprio as Rumi might just have been defended as the best guy for the role, "color-blind," or even a decision made in ignorance of the whitewashing problem. Now, with so much awareness of the issue, it's reframed as the gutsy, anti-establishment choice. Franzoni and Brown could go with the current conventional wisdom and cast a Persian actor, but nah, they're bold!
Riffs on the painful Twitter Moment language, many jumping off the hashtag #BoldCastingDecision started by Brandon Taylor, made this framing all the more starkly awful:
The rest of the world doesn't need to do Hollywood's spinning in the name of staying neutral. Doing the same safe, comfortable, exclusionary thing that's been done by the industry since it began is not, and never will be, a bold decision.