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25 Times White Actors Played People Of Color And No One Really Gave A S**t

Think blackface and yellowface are a thing of the past? Get ready to cringe.

02/27/2016 03:47 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2016
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As if it wasn't enough that Hollywood lacks serious diversity behind and in front of the camera, the industry also has a nasty (not so) little habit of giving diverse roles to white actors. 

That means that while an average of 75.2 percent of speaking roles already go to white actors, according the recent University of Southern California study "Inequality in 700 Popular Films," some of those parts are actually characters of color.

Over time we have come to expect a tsunami-sized wave of backlash when an actor of color is cast as a fictional character that audiences feel should be white -- see controversies over Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch or Amandla Stenberg as Rue of "The Hunger Games" -- but the outrage isn't quite the same when white actors portray characters of color. Even when, often, they are based of off real-life people of color. 

Think whitewashing, blackface and yellowface are things of the past? Get ready to cringe. Here are 25 times white actors played people of color and no one really gave a shit.

  • 1 Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl
    Alamy/Getty/HuffingtonPost
    Film: "A Mighty Heart" (2007) is based on the real-life ordeal of journalist Mariane Pearl after her husband Daniel, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, is kidnapped and later murdered by Pakistani militants.

    Character's Background: Mariane Pearl was born in France but she is of Afro-Cuban descent. She has naturally curly hair and a dark complexion.

    Actress' Background: Angelina Jolie has no African roots. None. Zero. She is of mixed-European descent. Her hair is not naturally curly, her skin is naturally fair and her eyes are actually blue-green. Behold (above), present-day blackface.
  • 2 Ben Affleck as Antonio J. Mendez
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    Film: "Argo" (2012) is based on the real-life work of top-level CIA operative Antonio J. Mendez, who helped orchestrate the rescue of six American hostages in Iran in 1980. The film won The Academy Award for Best Picture. 

    Character's Background: Antonio J. Mendez was born in Nevada and is Mexican-American.

    Actor's Background: Ben Affleck is not Latino. He is of mixed-European descent.
  • 3 Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson
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    Film: "Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon" (2016) is a British TV movie based on the alleged road trip that Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando took from New York City to Los Angeles after the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

    Character's Background: Michael Jackson was African-American. That means the legendary King of Pop was a Black man. He wasn't fond of whitewashing or of a white actor portraying him either. 

    Actor's Background: Joseph Fiennes said it best to Entertainment Tonight when the casting news came to light: "I'm a white, middle-class guy from London. I'm as shocked as you may be."
  • 4 Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi
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    Film: "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) is a Hollywood classic that centers on the romance between young New York socialite Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and a man who moves into her building.

    Character's Background: Mr. Yunioshi is Holly's hot-tempered Japanese landlord, who she consistently tries to avoid. 

    Actor's Background: Mickey Rooney was not Japanese. In one of the most outlandish displays of yellowface and Hollywood stereotyping, the American-born actor of Scottish descent had slanted eyelids, buck teeth and a thick accent in the film. 
  • 5 Juliette Binoche as Maria Segovia
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    Film: "The 33" (2015) recounts the true story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days.

    Character's Background: Maria Segovia was the real-life sister of one of the miner's trapped underground. Above ground she was known for her efforts with "Campo Esperanza," a makeshift tent community in the Atacama Desert where family members of the miners lived to stay close to their relatives. She is Chilean, with a dark brown complexion. 

    Actress' Background: Juliette Binoche is a French actress, whose complexion is much fairer compared to the real Maria's complexion.
  • 6 The main cast of the "The Last Airbender"
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    Film: "The Last Airbender" (2010) is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon featuring tribes and characters of Asian and Native American-descent and their journey to stop the Fire Nation from taking over their tribes.

    Characters' Background:
    Katara, her brother Sokka and the rest of the Water Tribe are said to be primarily influenced by the Inuit people and culture. Aang, the titular character of the film and series, is of Asian ancestry. 

    Casts' Background: The actors who portrayed the three main character mentioned above were all white with no Asian or Native American ancestry -- Noah Ringer as Aang, Nicola Peltz as Katara, and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka. And the actors of color that were cast in the film? They were all cast as villains.
  • 7 Laurence Olivier as Othello
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    Film: "Othello" (1965) is one of many film adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name.

    Character's Background: Othello is a general in the Venetian army. He is also a Christian Moor, which means he is generally depicted with a dark-complexion. 

    Actor's Background: British actor Laurence Olivier has no African or Arab roots, which is why he wore full-on blackface to portray the jealous Moor. That's right, he painted his skin several shades darker to play Othello.
  • 8 Natalie Wood as Maria
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    Film: "West Side Story" (1961) is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. In this version, a young girl and boy from rival New York City gangs fall in love.

    Character's Background: Maria is the younger sister of Bernardo -- the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. So, she's Puerto Rican. 

    Actress' Background: Natalie Wood was not Puerto Rican or Latina, the actress was of Russian descent. But Maria wasn't the only whitewashed role in the film, with the notable exception of Rita Moreno who won an Oscar for her role as Anita, most of the Puerto Ricans in the film were portrayed by non-Latino actors.

    Also pictured above is opera singer Isabel Leonard, of Argentine-descent, who portrayed Maria in a rendition of "One Hand, One Heart" during the Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series in 2012. See, Hollywood? It can be done.
  • 9 Johnny Depp as Tonto
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    Film: "The Lone Ranger" (2013) is a film-adaptation of the hit TV series of the same name. The movie was more centered on Native American warrior Tonto and his recollection of John Reid's, aka the Lone Ranger, origin story. 

    Character's Background: Tonto is a Native American warrior. In the 1950s TV series, he is portrayed by First Nation actor Jay Silverheels (also pictured above) who in real-life was a member of the Mohawk tribe.

    Actor's Background: Johnny Depp is not member of any First Nation tribe, though he told Entertainment Weekly he has "some Native American somewhere down the line" and that it might be Cherokee or Creek. If the claim is true, the franchise would still have gone from casting an actual First Nation actor in the 1950s to one of mostly European-descent in the 2010s. 
  • 10 Katharine Hepburn as Jade
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    Film: "Dragon Seed" (1944) is a film set during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Jade is a Chinese woman that leads her village to fight against Japanese invaders. 

    Character's Background: Again, Jade is a meant to be a Chinese woman living in a small village in China. 

    Actress' Background: Katharine Hepburn was not Chinese, or of Asian-descent. The American-born actress was of mixed-European descent. 
  • 11 Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
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    Film: "Cleopatra" (1963) is a historical epic that follows Cleopatra's passionate affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Not to mention its one of the most extravagant and expensive movies ever made. 

    Character's Background: Cleopatra was Egypt's last independent pharaoh. She is widely believed to have been of Macedonian descent, though many modern-day scientists insist she also had African roots. That means that it is very unlikely that Cleopatra was as fair-skinned and light-eyed as Hollywood portrays her. 

    Actress' Background: Elizabeth Taylor was born in England to American parents. Her family's ancestry was rooted in Western European.
  • 12 Jim Sturgess as Jeffrey Ma
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    Film: "21" (2008) is a film based on true events that follows the story of a brilliant MIT student who is trained, along with other students, to become an expert card counter in blackjack. 

    Character's Background: The protagonist of the film, Ben Campbell, is actually based on real-life MIT card counter and blackjack player Jeffrey Ma. Ma is an American of Chinese descent. In fact, most of the real-life blackjack team was of Asian descent but were portrayed in the film by white actors. 

    Actor's Background: Jim Sturgess is a British actor, who required a dialect coach to master an American accent for the role. While Sturgess' role in "21" was completely whitewashed, the actor is also known for having worn full-on yellowface for his "Cloud Atlas" character in 2012.
  • 13 Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash
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    Film: "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) is a movie based on the life and career of brilliant mathematician John Nash.   

    Character's Background: Alicia (born Alicia Lardé) is an MIT student who would later become John's wife. The real Alicia was Salvadorian. 
     
    Actress' Background: Jennifer Connelly is not Latina and has no Latin American roots. The actress is of mixed-European descent. Connelly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role in 2002.
  • 14 John Wayne as Genghis Khan
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    Film: "The Conqueror" (1956) was a film that chronicled the rise of Genghis Khan. 

    Character's Background: The emperor and legendary conqueror Genghis Khan was mongol, and born near the border of present-day Mongolia and Siberia. 

    Actor's Background: John Wayne had no Asian ancestry. He was of mixed-European descent. 
  • 15 Russell Crowe as Noah
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    Film: "Noah" (2014) is a retelling of the biblical story of a man chosen by God and entrusted with a mission as he purges the Earth with an apocalyptic flood.

    Character's Background: Noah, much like other biblical figures, is from somewhere in ancient Middle East. That means it's unlikely that he was so fair-skinned.

    Actor's Background: Russell Crowe was born in New Zealand and is of mixed-European descent. He wasn't the only whitewashed character in the film, fellow cast members included Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson.
  • 16 Christian Bale as Moses
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    Film: "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (2014) is based on the biblical story of Moses and his defiance against Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses as he leads thousands of slaves out of Egypt. 

    Character's Background: Moses, like Noah, hails from ancient Middle East. He eventually leads the enslaved Israelites to freedom. 

    Actor's Background: Christian Bale is a British actor with no Middle Eastern ancestry. He's also far from the only white actor in the film, Australian actor Joel Edgerton portrays Ramses.

    After a blog calling the film "racist" for having white leads while people of color were cast as servants and slaves went viral and the hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie began to trend, director Ridley Scott defended his decisions with a simple excuse: money. 

    "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," Scott told Variety. "I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up." And that was that. The film still went on to make over $260 million worldwide.
  • 17 Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia
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    Film: "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" (2010) is based on the video game franchise that follows the fugitive fictional prince of Persia, Dastan, on different adventures. 

    Character's Background: Unsurprisingly, the Prince of Persia is meant to be Persian. Persia is actually what most people recognize as present-day Iran.

    Actor's Background: Jake Gyllenhall is not Iranian. He was born in California and is of mixed-European and Jewish descent.
  • 18 Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya
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    Films: "Short Circuit" (1986) is a sci-fi franchise about an experimental robot that is struck by lighting and gains human-like intelligence.

    Character's Background: One of the robot's inventors is Ben Jabituya, a scientist of Indian descent. 

    Actor's Background: Fisher Stevens is not of Indian ancestry and essentially donned brownface for the role. For comparison, pictured above is real-life Nobel Prize-winning Indian scientist Har Gobind Khorana
  • 19 Meryl Streep as Clara del Valle Trueba
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    Film: "The House of Spirits" (1993) is a film based on Chilean writer Isabel Allende's bestseller of the same name. It tells the story of a rancher, his wife and their family as they face turbulent times in Chile.

    Character's Background: Clara del Valle Trueba is a clairvoyant and the wife of said rancher. Much like all of the characters in the film and book, she is Chilean.

    Actress' Background: Streep is not Latina or of Latin American descent. She is of mixed-European ancestry.
  • 20 Marlon Brando as Sakini
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    Film: "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956) is a satire set in post-World War II Japan that follows the U.S. military's attempt to Americanize Japan. 

    Character's Background: Sakini is a local who becomes an interpreter for the U.S. military. He is Japanese. 

    Actor's Background: Marlon Brando is not Japanese or of Asian descent. He is of mixed-European descent and wore full yellowface for the role. Brando also portrayed real-life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in "Viva Zapata!" (1952) despite not being Latino. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the role. 
  • 21 Yul Brynner as The King of Siam
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    Film: "The King and I" (1956) is a musical set in Siam (present-day Thailand) and centered around a British widow who becomes a live-in governess to the King of Siam's children. 

    Character's Background: As the King of Siam, he is of Southeast Asian descent.

    Actor's Background: Yul Brynner was mainly of Russian descent. 
  • 22 Paul Muni and Luise Rainer as Chinese farmers
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    Film: "The Good Earth" (1937) is based on the historical novel of the same name and centers on a family of farmers struggling in China. 

    Character's Background: The protagonists of the story Wang and O-Lan are -- you guessed it -- Chinese. 

    Actor's Background: Wang is portrayed by Paul Muni and O-Lan is portrayed by Luise Rainer. Neither were of Asian descent. Both wore yellowface for their roles.
  • 23 Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul
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    Films: "Batman Begins" (2005) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) are the first and final films in the Dark Knight trilogy, which center on the DC Comics vigilante Batman. 

    Character's Background: Ra's Al Ghul is one the biggest and longest-standing villains in the Batman universe. He is said to have been born in Arabia and is considered to be of Arab descent.

    Actor's Background: Liam Neeson is just one of many white actors to portray the character on film. He is Irish.
  • 24 Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu
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    Film: "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932) is based on the book series that follows the schemes of Dr. Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese genius.

    Character's Background: Dr. Fu Manchu is a Chinese villain. The character is often viewed as the "Yellow peril incarnate" who reflected Western fears of China.

    Actor's Background: English actor Boris Karloff is one of many white actors to portray the character. No actor of Asian descent has portrayed Dr. Fu Manchu.
  • 25 Carey Mulligan as Irene
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    Film: "Drive" (2011) is based on a novel of the same name and centers around a skilled Hollywood stuntman and getaway driver that runs into trouble when he tries to help out his neighbor, Irene.

    Character's Background: 
    In the book, the stuntman's neighbor is actually Irina -- a young Latina woman in her twenties. In the movie, the character was re-written as Irene.  

    Actor's Background: Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn said he re-wrote the character of Irina to be a white character because he couldn't find a Latina actress he wanted to protect...? 

    "I couldn't find any actress that would click with me personally," he told The Huffington Post. "I couldn't make a decision for some reason. I had all this talent in front of me and out of the blue I get a call from Carey because she wanted to meet me about doing a movie. She came by the house and she walked in and I realized, 'Oh my God, this is what I was looking for. I wanted to protect her' ... And I knew that was the Driver's motivation." 

But these are just a handful of examples from a long list of cringe-worthy and shameless casting decisions in Hollywood. We could also talk about Emma Stone as part-Asian Allison Ng in "Aloha," Justin Chatwin as Goku in "Dragonball: Evolution," Fred Astaire in blackface in "Swing Time," Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in "Pan" -- because it's a seemingly never-ending story. And what have we learned after all this time? 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the USC study. It is "Inequality in 700 Popular Films," not "Inequality in 100 Popular Films."

This article has been updated to note that Neeson first appears in the role of Batman's adversary Ra's al Ghul in "Batman Begins," which was not originally listed here. Neeson also briefly reprises his role as Ra's al Ghul in "The Dark Knight Rises."

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