10 Times White Actors Played People Of Color

Johnny Depp joins a long line of white people who decided to take roles that were pretty out of their wheelhouse. A small sampling.

1. Burt Lancaster, Apache, 1954

Lancaster plays an Apache soldier captured by Americans. Jenni Monet writes, “The reality is, Native Americans have long suffered a public relations problem in a society that would rather regard today’s Indians as relics of the past.”

2. Mickey Rooney, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961

Mickey Rooney plays a Japanese man. Asian Week gives this character the No. 2 spot on its list of “The 25 Most Infamous Yellow Face Film Performances.”

3. Chuck Connors, Geronimo, 1962

Connors plays Geronimo, leader of the Apache resistance movement until 1886. Comedian Charlie Hill said in the film Reel Injun, “Chuck Connors as Geronimo! That’s like Adam Sandler as Malcolm X!”

4. Laurence Olivier, Othello, 1965

Olivier played the Shakespearean character, who is labeled a “Moor” in the play. A contemporary review of the film said he looked like the “end man in an American minstrel show.”

5. David Carradine, Kung Fu, 1972–1975

David Carradine plays a Buddhist monk, Kwai Chang Caine, who was raised in China and comes to America looking for his white half-brother. In an article on Racialicious, he was described as having a “godawful racist career!” “Sitting there and watching [Kung Fu] was like … offering your body up to be erased,” the writer continues.

6. Joel Grey, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, 1985

Joel Grey plays “a deceptively harmless, wizened, crafty, benevolent, a little bit mysterious Asian man, who is in reality a martial-arts master,” or a yellowface cliché, as David Desser writes in The Martial Arts Film in the 1990s.

7. Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart, 2007

Angelina Jolie plays the real-life person Mariane Pearl, a French woman with a Cuban mother and a Dutch father. Pearl “is clearly a person of African ancestry, and putting dark make up and a curly wig on Angelina Jolie doesn’t change that fact or fool anyone,” writes Margaret Kimberly.

8. Ben Affleck, Argo, 2012

Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative with Mexican ancestry. Moctesuma Esparza writes that this whitewashing is “perpetuating ethnic and racial invisibility of Latinos in Hollywood.”

9. James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas, 2012

James D’Arcy plays “The Archivist,” a Korean man who interrogates Sonmi-451 in Neo Seoul. Andrew Ti writes on Grantland that “rather than address something like facial structure, or, god forbid, getting an Asian actor to play this role, they elect to concentrate on the most obvious and craven characteristics that they perceive in Asian people, their slanty eyes and their not-quite-white skin.”

10. Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger, 2013

Johnny Depp plays Tonto, a Native American companion to a masked former Texas Ranger.

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