White Actors’ Most Egregious Portrayals of People of Color


The new reboot of the classic radio serial and television Western The Lone Ranger is out today, and much of the conversation has centered on the casting of Caucasian (with some Indian somewhere in his background — promise!) actor Johnny Depp in the role of Native American sidekick/stereotype Tonto. Unfortunately, it’s just the latest example of a white actor playing a character of color — though Depp can take some comfort in the fact that his portrayal isn’t nearly as offensive as some of those that came before him.

Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, Check and Double Check (1930)

The Amos n’ Andy Show was one of the most controversial programs on television, from its debut in the 1950s to its removal from syndication a decade later, for its stereotypical portrait of life in Harlem. But at least the show featured African-American actors; the men who created and performed the roles on the radio, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were white, and when RKO wanted to turn the popular radio show into a movie, the two men slapped on the blackface and rendered the characters’ “dees,” “doze,” and miscellaneous malapropisms all the more offensive.

Bugs Bunny, “Southern Fried Rabbit” (1953)

Thankfully, blackface fell out of fashion in major motion pictures in the years following the release of Check and Double Check, but continued to appear, weirdly enough, in children’s cartoons. Take, for example, this Bugs Bunny short from 1953, in which Bugs is blocked from crossing the Mason-Dixon line by a Confederate Yosemite Sam, so he dons the clever disguise of a banjo-plucking slave (complete with this pleading bit of dialogue to Sam: “Please don’t beat me, massa!”). “Southern Fried Rabbit” and a few other (shall we say) problematic Looney Tunes shorts were subsequently edited for television airings, though this one is presented uncut on the fourth of their Golden Collection DVD sets.

Rock Hudson, Winchester ‘73 (1950)

It’s far from revolutionary to note that American Westerns, basically up until the ‘70s, had a bit of a Native American problem. And it wasn’t just that they were portrayed as whooping savages and/or stern broken English-spouters; it was that they were usually portrayed by white actors with a thick coat of base and a splattering of war paint — as was the case with Midwestern matinee idol Rock Hudson, making his fifth film appearance as “Young Bull” in this Anthony Mann classic.

Victor Mature, Chief Crazy Horse (1955)

This 1955 film from Western mainstay George Sherman was unique among its peers for presenting a comparatively sympathetic portrait of the Native American culture, as seen through the story of their victory at the Battle of Big Horn. But that’s still no excuse for casting Samson and Delilah star Victor Mature, he of Italian and Swiss heritage, as the famed Native American chief.

Elvis Presley, Stay Away, Joe (1968)

“By 1968,” write Harry and Michael Medved in The Golden Turkey Awards, “Elvis Presley had shown so little emotion in so many different roles, and worked out such a convincing on-screen impression of a cigar-store Indian, that casting him as a Native American seemed a natural and inevitable step.” But Presley’s casting was far from the film’s main offense — they also cast Burgess Meredith (Burgess Meredith!) as his father. And on top of everything, they released a poster that included an image of Presley sneering at an elderly Native American wrapped in a Navajo blanket, captioned thus: “89 years old — and he still needs his security blanket!” Ho, ho.

Charlton Heston, Touch of Evil (1958)

Late in Ed Wood, the titular character (played by Johnny Depp), in a moment of doubt, bumps into his idol Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) and seeks advice on a casting problem. “Tell me about it,” Welles replies. “I’m supposed to direct a thriller for Universal. They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!” Of course, Touch of Evil is a great movie, inappropriate casting or not, and Heston is about as good as he gets (and his clout reportedly got Welles the directing gig). But it’s still impossible to keep from cracking up whenever the very white Heston is introduced by his very Mexican name, Ramon Miguel Vargas.

Robby Benson, Walk Proud (1979)

Still, Heston looks like Diego Luna compared to Robby Benson, the ‘70s Jewish heartthrob who played Chicano gang leader Emilio Mendez in this bland West Side Story rip-off. He adopted an accent that Speedy Gonzalez would laugh at, while his baby blues were hidden behind contact lenses and his skin was darkened by makeup, but to ill effect; Boxoffice magazine joked, “he looks like a fraternity kid with a suntan.”

Marlon Brando, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)

In the second half of his career, the great Marlon Brando devoted considerable energy to the civil rights struggle and the movement for Native American rights (most famously manifested in the scene at the 1973 Academy Awards). So that makes his “yellow-face” performance as an Okinawan in The Teahouse of the August Moon all the more befuddling. It was reportedly a passion project for the actor, who saw John Patrick’s Broadway play four times and became obsessed with bringing it to the screen. Maybe he passed by the logical, white lead (played by Glenn Ford) to challenge himself as an actor; whatever his reasoning, it didn’t work. As The New Yorker noted, “Made up to look like a relative of Dr. Fu Manchu, and babbling pidgin English at a great rate, he never succeeds in hiding the fact that he’s really an All-American boy.”

Mickey Rooney, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

But Brando’s turn is the portrait of sensitivity compared to the notorious work of Rooney as “Mr. Yunioshi,” the buck-toothed, English-garbling Japanese caricature that has turned the otherwise innocuous sophisticated comedy into an uncomfortable viewing experience (and occasional point of protest) for modern audiences. (The cringe-inducing character has even inspired scenes in other movies.)

Rob Schneider, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

To be fair, Schneider is a quarter Fillipino, which is about the only possible explanation for why everybody thought it was cool for him to do a horrifyingly racist turn as the Asian minister of Chuck and Larry’s Canadian wedding. Schneider goes “full Rooney” here, and we’re supposed to… what? Laugh? The fact that this performance made it into a major, studio-released motion picture in 2007 is stunning; that it plays so prominently into a film that claims to preach tolerance is hypocrisy of the highest order. The message, apparently, is that homophobia is bad, but xenophobia is totally cool.