The Guardian defines whitewashing as casting white actors to play non-white characters, often to shoehorn in a star, sometimes out of racial insensitivity, invariably to the detriment of people (and especially actors) of color. It was at one time a common practice in film and television, especially during Hollywood’s silent and golden ages when America was still largely segregated and movies with non-whites in roles other than stereotypical ones might just be banned in some cities.
People often cite John Wayne in Genghis Khan, Charlton Heston as the Mexican hero of Touch Of Evil, Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, Laurence Olivier in Othello, and Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban Frenchwoman in director Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart as examples. Some consider Elizabeth Taylor’s turn at Cleopatra to be an example of whitewashing and the news Gal Gadot may assume the role of the Egyptian queen is also raising eyebrows, though some justify it by saying she’s at least from that part of the world. (note: Cleopatra’s true heritage is a point of contention among many.)
In 2013, Johnny Depp’s turn as Native American Tonto in the box-office bomb The Lone Ranger sparked controversy. He claims to be part Cherokee as do most people from the southern United States these days though he’s never verified it. Now, Mr. Depp may once again be courting controversy by lobbying for the role of Gomez Addams in Tim Burton’s upcoming Addams Family reboot.
According to reputable sources, including the character’s creator Charles Addams, Gomez is of Castilian (Spanish) origin. When asked why he chose the name Gomez for the character when the series was being developed, Addams “thought the character had a bit of Spanish blood in him.” But Addams pondered whether the character should be Italian or Spanish, ultimately choosing the Spanish name Gomez over the Italian name Repelli. Gomez’s heritage and personality were codified by the television series, his Spanish ancestry established in Art and the Addams Family on December 18, 1964.
The casting of John Astin in the 1960s beloved television show was, in itself, whitewashing. But as in some other examples referenced above, this was during a time where it was accepted in Tinseltown. Times have changed, and as Kiko Martinez pointed out earlier this week, Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia finally brought some semblance of what has become accepted canon to the character.
Of course, Depp as Gomez isn’t a done deal. After losing his roles in Pirates of the Caribbean, Fantastic Beasts, and Harry Houdini, the rumor is Netflix has been pushing back on the role going to him because he’s now generally considered toxic in Hollywood despite a fan-made poster making the rounds on the internet. Stay tuned!