A recent Cinemulatto Facebook discussion on Breakfast at Tiffany’s had me thinking about really, really bad instances of white people playing people of color in movies. Sure, we have half-forgiven relics such as Al Jolson in blackface, Luise Rainer winning an Oscar for her role as a Chinese farmer, or even Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Gene Wilder is funny in Silver Streak and A Mighty Heart had decent acting. Plus, it’s long been a cinematic norm to have white people “stretching” to play non-white roles (or the occasional Filipino portraying someone like Richie Valens). History has kind of allowed us to pardon the simply misinformed choices of well-meaning casting directors.
Some casting decisions, however, were just really, really bad. Here are the most painful.
- Anthony Hopkins – Coleman Silk in The Human Stain
A Welsh man playing a black man passing as white. The younger version of Coleman Silk is played convincingly by Wentworth Miller. However, we couldn’t get beyond Hopkins’ British accent and the fact that not only does he not look remotely black, but he seems to have trouble sounding American. Was Tom Hanks busy?
- Mickey Rooney – Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Granted, Mickey Rooney didn’t mean to offend anybody. Still, this is just goofy. No longer funny. Bad. Truman Capote’s novella had Mr. Yunioshi in only a tiny role as Holly Golightly’s annoyed but smitten neighbor. No sign of false teeth, and he even had a hipster profession as a photographer. Where’s the spinoff?
- Sean Penn – a Cuban peasant in Before Night Falls
He appears in only one scene, and maybe someone wanted to add more A-list actor cred to Julian Schnabel’s sophomore film effort. I’m a big fan of Schnabel. I’m a small fan of the bad makeup job on Penn. I don’t get it—the cast is otherwise packed with Latino actors. As for A-list, wasn’t Johnny Depp enough, in two roles? Couldn’t he have played just one more tiny role as the peasant?
- William Shatner – dual role as a white man and his Comanche brother in White Comanche
Okay, the makers of this movie get points for featuring mixed-race brothers. They fight each other. Shatner whoops and hollers as an Indian brave. Guess which one smokes peyote? Shatner was at the top of his game with Star Trek, so maybe he thought he could do anything. Verdict: wrong.
- Peter O’Toole – a Tibetan lama in Kim
This is so bad, I don’t know where to start. Actually, I’ll start with the overwhelming sadness caused by knowing this is the man from Lawrence of Arabia. Please, avoid this made-for-TV movie from 1984 based on the Rudyard Kipling novel. The book: classic. Peter O’Toole as a Tibetan lama in a skull cap: horrible.
What are some of your least-favorite ethnic casting moments?