Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman and 17 other outrageous and controversial movie castings
Julia Roberts and Harriet Tubman
The internet almost exploded when Harriet screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, revealed that when he first started working on the movie in 1994, one studio executive suggested Julia Roberts portray the legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. According to Howard's account, when it was pointed out to the exec Roberts possibly couldn't play the role, they responded, "It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."
As Howard himself writes, Hollywood has undergone a "climate change" when it comes to diversity in the decades since his first meetings with studio execs, but it does not mean it's hasn't been without controversy. Here’s a look at just a few of the notable movies that have stumbled on diversity casting in recent years.
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
When Harriet finally reached the screen in 2019 — without Julia Roberts — its lead, Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo, faced a backlash of her own: critics were not happy with a British-born actress of Nigerian heritage portraying one of America’s most important and beloved abolitionists. Compounding the issue, shortly after her casting in Harriet was announced, fans discovered some controversial tweets seemingly mocking black American accents.
Erivo, however, sympathized with the criticism, saying in an interview at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, "I still do think there are conversations to be had. I think it is coming from a place of people not feeling like they are seen or feeling like they’ve had enough. And I understand that this is a person that means a lot to a lot of people."
Scarlett Johansson and Rub & Tug
In July 2018, Scarlett Johansson was attached to portray the real-life transgender massage parlor owner and gangster Dante "Tex" Gill in the movie Rub & Tug from director Rupert Sanders. She initially pushed back at criticism from the LGBTQ community, but Johansson eventually dropped out of the project, citing the "larger conversation about diversity and representation in film."
The Rub & Tug controversy bubbled up again in 2019 when Johnansson was quoted in the British press as saying, "Art should be free of restrictions." She later clarified to EW, "I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way. I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included."
Ed Skrein as Ben Daimio in Hellboy
On Aug. 21, 2017, British actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool) announced he had joined the cast of the next Hellboy film as Ben Daimio, a character of Japanese-American descent in the comics. A week later, following growing controversy over his hiring, Skrein announced he was dropping out of the film. “I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage. There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right,” he wrote in a statement. Hellboy producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin and Lionsgate & Millennium also spoke out in a statement to Deadline, saying, “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”
The Netflix film adaptation of the popular Japanese manga was criticized for whitewashing the story (Nat Wolff plays the film's lead, a character who is Japanese in the source material). But producers argued shifting the story to Seattle turned it into an American story.
"Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn't find the right person, the actors we did go to didn't speak the perfect English…and the characters had been rewritten," producer Masi Oka told EW last year (Oka was not involved in the film's casting). "They could have gone [with an] Asian [actor], I can't deny that. The studios were adamant about trying to cast Asian actors. I mean, this was a difficult one. It was something we were definitely conscious about."
Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng in Aloha
A star-studded project from Cameron Crowe and Scott Rudin and starring Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, and John Krasinski among others, sounded like a recipe for box office gold — but the film quickly went in another direction. Aloha came under fire in 2015 for the casting of Stone as an Asian-American woman named Captain Allison Ng. After widespread outcry, Crowe commented on the casting, writing in a statement, "I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice... As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud 1/4 Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one." Stone herself also discussed the controversy, saying in an interview that she "learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is," adding that the discussions "ignited a conversation that’s very important."
Matt Damon in The Great Wall
Damon plays one of the heroes in the China-set film, a casting choice that was slammed as perpetuating the white-savior myth. "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world," Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu wrote in a widely circulated tweet. "Our heroes don't look like Matt Damon."
Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange
The Ancient One as presented in the Doctor Strange comics is traditionally portrayed as an Asian man. But for the film adaptation, Swinton was cast in the role, which was changed along with her involvement. "Anybody calling for more accurate representation of the diverse world we live in has got me standing right beside them," Swinton told EW in 2016 before the film's release. "I think when people see this film, they're going to see that it comes from a very diverse place, in all sorts of ways. Maybe this misunderstanding around this film has been an opportunity for that voice to be heard, and I'm not against that at all. But I do think that when people see the film, they'll see that it's not necessarily a target for that voice."
Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan
The same year that she starred opposite Cate Blanchett in the critical darling Carol, Rooney Mara faced controversy over her Pan character. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo actress was tapped to play Tiger Lily in the 2015 film — a role many thought should've gone to a person of color based on the character's Native American roots. Mara weighed in on the issue in a 2015 interview with PEOPLE, saying of the controversy, "It wasn’t great, I felt really bad about it. It was something that I thought about before I met with [director] Joe [Wright]. When I met with Joe and heard what his plans for it were, it was something I really wanted to be a part of. But I totally sympathize with why people were upset and feel really bad about it."
Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is based on an anime and manga series of the same name starring a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi. The live-action adaptation, however, starred Scarlett Johansson, a white actress. Soon after DreamWorks revealed its casting decision in 2015, petitions sprung up demanding that Hollywood "stop whitewashing Asian characters." In April 2016, the studio released a first look at Johansson in her lead role, prompting a fresh wave of criticism from actress Ming-Na Wen, Yahoo’s Jason Chen, the Angry Asian Man blog, and many more influential figures in the community. Johansson spoke out on the controversy in a 2017 interview, saying on Good Morning America, “I think this character is living a very unique experience in that she has a human brain in an entirely machinate body. She’s essentially identity-less. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously. Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will be answered by audiences when they see the film." The film ultimately opened to critical reviews and disappointing box office results, grossing just $40.6 million in its domestic run (though the film did see a stronger performance overseas).
Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina
Zoe Saldana faced heat over playing Nina Simone in the film Nina. While the decision to cast the Guardians of the Galaxy actress as the famed musician had been a controversial one since it was first announced, the drama bubbled back up in March 2016. After Saldana tweeted a quote from Simone reading, "I'll tell you what freedom is to me- No Fear... I mean really, no fear," the late singer's estate responded from her Twitter account, writing, "Cool story but please take Nina's name out your mouth. For the rest of your life." Director Cynthia Mort weighed in as well on the controversy, telling EW, "Zoe gave an amazingly courageous and great performance. I think that’s all that should matter."
Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale played Moses in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, raising the eyebrows of viewers and critics. The British actor was taking on a character with Egyptian roots, leading whitewashing controversy to surround the film. Director Ridley Scott addressed the issue in an interview with Variety, saying, "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. So the question doesn’t even come up." Costume designer Janty Yates also weighed in, telling EW, "You can’t expect a studio to back you because they want box office. So they want names they recognize. Ridley’s not like that at all. If you look at Kingdom of Heaven, Saladin was played by a Syrian actor."
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart
In 2007, Angelina Jolie hit the big screen in A Mighty Heart. She played real-life journalist Mariane Pearl in the film, bringing Pearl's memoir to the big screen. The decision to cast Jolie as the woman who wrote about her husband's kidnapping and killing in Pakistan was questioned, however, as the real Pearl was born in France to Dutch and Cuban parents. Public outcry followed, as fans questioned the techniques used to get Jolie to more closely resemble Pearl.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Jake Gyllenhaal picked up the lead role as Persian prince Dastan in 2010's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — the only problem? Gyllenhaal is not Persian. The controversy had enough of a legacy that John Oliver referenced it six years after the movie's release, saying in a segment on Hollywood whitewashing, "A white American with a Swedish last name was cast to play the prince of Persia from, you know, Persia."
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo
Ben Affleck stepped behind the camera to direct and produce the Oscar-winning Argo, but also starred in the film as CIA agent Tony Mendez. Some viewers took issue with Affleck playing a real-life person with roots in Mexico. After it became an issue, Affleck said in an interview that he "sought [Tony's] approval" before playing him, adding, "I felt very comfortable that if Tony was cool with it, I was cool with it." Mendez himself seemed to take little issue with the casting as well, telling NBC in an interview that his family moved to the United States around 1900 and he never learned Spanish, growing up with his mother's side of the family, which is not Hispanic. "I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic," he added. "I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert. If I had been in a different family circumstance, I might have felt that way. But, mostly, my family was at odds with each other in a playful way, they weren’t talking about heritage in that regard."
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence may have aided The Hunger Games in its massive box office hauls and become a bona fide superstar during the franchise's run, but before all of the success and fanfare there was casting controversy. Fans of Suzanne Collins' original Hunger Games books took issue with Lawrence playing the role of Katniss. In the first book, Katniss looks over at Gale, describing their shared physical attributes as ones of "straight black hair, olive skin," and "the same gray eyes." Katniss goes on to add in the book that her mother and sister Prim, "with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place." Fans raised eyebrows at the casting of a light-haired, blue-eyed Lawrence, but author Collins later told EW, "They were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, gray eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup."
Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas
In the sweeping, ambitious Cloud Atlas, Jim Sturgess spends a sequence playing a character by the name of Hae-Joo Chang, who is living in Korea. Questions were raised as to whether Sturgess, a British actor, underwent "yellow face" makeup to look more like his character. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans spoke out against the casting, with founding president Guy Aoki releasing a statement reading, "Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man — an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers... The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes." The Wachowskis also weighed in, telling HuffPost Entertainment, "That's good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it. But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgment."
Gods of Egypt
Amid controversy over the film's casting choices, Gods of Egypt hit theaters in 2016, earning just $31.15 million in the U.S. on its estimated $140 million budget. The movie, which featured Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Chadwick Boseman, and Gerard Butler, among others, scored an additional $119.5 million in foreign box office totals.