There has been an upward trend in Hollywood recently, with studios jumping in on live action remakes of beloved Disney films. Two years ago, we saw Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror, and this year Maleficent will make it to the big screen. It’s the same-same but different formula; films taking a classic tale, but twisting it in such a way that challenges our understanding of a children’s fairytale.
And that’s exactly the case in the latest Warner Bros. project, Pan, to be directed by British filmmaker Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina). Pan is being billed as the Peter Pan origins film, telling the story of an orphan boy who is spirited away to the magical Neverland where he takes on grand adventures that shape him into the hero we know as Peter Pan. It was all good and done. The film is slated for a 2015 release, and initial reactions were positive. Hugh Jackman (X-Men franchise) and Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) had signed on as Blackbeard and Captain Hook respectively. People were excited. But then it all came crashing down when it was announced Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Her) had landed the role of Tiger Lily.
Rooney Mara, a white actress, landing the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American character.
Apparently, Warner Bros’ “new take” on Peter Pan involves the whitewashing of people of colour.
This is simply not okay. Casting a Caucasian actress in an Indigenous role is at its core, wrong. For centuries, Indigenous people have faced oppression from settlers and have worked hard to gain respect for their customs and traditions, to try and reestablish their equality, only now to have it, for lack of a better phrase, thrown back in their face. It’s a clear indicator of Hollywood’s obsession with entertainment over authenticity, history, and discrimination.
For once, Warner Bros. Studios had an opportunity to be the bigger person. Native American actors and actresses are alarmingly underrepresented in Hollywood. This was a chance for the studio to elevate a Native American actress to a high-profile, top billing project and gain positive publicity for doing so. Instead, the studio is facing severe backlash from critics and the public, and what started out as a promising profitable box office release could now end up as a box office bomb. In fact, there’s an online petition calling for a recasting of Tiger Lily with over 10,000 signatures already.
It might be argued, “it’s only a movie – a fantasy movie – and filmmakers can do whatever they like…how much harm can this do, really?” A lot, actually. Think about the audience demographic the film is being targeted at – children. Films are a mirror of our society and reflect our changing cultural landscape. How can children stand to learn about the progress of multiracial equality in schools if such education is not repeated in popular culture? Watching this film will simply sends children the message that people of colour and the cultures don’t matter, and that their role models should be white. Ultimately, this will feed into the ever damaging cycle of bullying, body image, and low self-esteem.
Look, I don’t have anything against Rooney Mara. I don’t doubt her talents. In fact, she is one of the industry’s most refined actresses. In Her, she perfectly showcased the entire range of the emotional scale by body language alone. But it is not enough of a reason to justify her in the role of Tiger Lily. By accepting the role, she has symbolically okay-ed the cultural appropriation of Indigenous (and by extension, other ethnic) cultures. Jump ahead to the filming. Think about the sensitivities of a white person dressed in a Native American outfit. It is highly disrespectful. Mara has no understandings of Indigenous cultures and the struggles they faced, and continue to face, by colonisation in wider society. In fact, it is offensive for Mara to even have accepted this role, let alone audition for it.
When pressed for a comment, Warner Bros. wrote “Wright is planning to create a world that [is] very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.” Sure. So that’s why French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour) was also in consideration for Tiger Lily. Oh wait, no, she isn’t Native American either! Alright, so maybe what Warner Bros. meant by “international and multi-racial” extends to the lead cast. Maybe by casting a Caucasian in a Native American role, Wright hired a non-Caucasian for a Caucasian role. Nope. It’s an all white lead cast – Jackman, Hedlund, Mara, Amanda Seyfried (Mary), and Levi Miller (Peter Pan).
As the A.V. Club writes, it becomes clear now that Wright’s claim of diversity lies in those actors and actresses who won’t be billed above the title. That is, all the “multi-racial” cast members have been relegated to supporting roles, not stars. I’m not sure what dictionaries Warner Bros. and Wright have in their collection, but “diversity” in my books is the even representation of all persons across all positions in play.
If one was going to “challenge [the] preconceived notions of Neverland” by having Tiger Lily represented as a Caucasian race, it would only be fair to completely reverse the representation by having the normally Caucasian characters played by actors of colour. Only then would this film have some hint of balance, and actually challenge our preconceived notions of Neverland. Because right now, Pan is proving to be far from spectacular.
We need to take a moment to remember that this is 2014. Why are are studios like Warner Bros. using outdated media representations of persons of colour? Why do we still live in a world where Hollywood deems it okay to perpetuate racism, even if in its subtlest forms? Frankly, these are questions we shouldn’t even be asking.
– by Nicole Lam