Is Prince Of Persia Really A Racial Whitewash?

Is Prince Of Persia Really A Racial Whitewash?

Prince of Persia director Mike Newell tells Reuters that he’s worried that the film is “a little homogeneous”. Critics are already saying the film is a whitewash – filled with white actors. But is it, and are they correct?

Throughout its history, Hollywood has hired white actors for pretty much any race – you name it, and a white dude has probably played it on screen. And it doesn’t seem to be stopping. Take the recent Hollywood version of Japanese manga/anime Dragonball, Dragonball Evolution. The character of Goku was played Justin Chatwin, a Canadian.

Hollywood, however, occasionally makes somewhat of an effort: it did cast Asian actress for the 2005 film version of Memoirs of a Geisha. However, those actresses were Chinese stars and not Japanese, something that caused considerable controversy for the film in both Japan and China.

However, for Prince of Persia, it is more important to note that issues of race are not clearcut. In the book The History of White People, author Nell Irvin Painter notes that many ethnic groups now viewed as white (such as Irish, Jews and Italians) were not viewed as part of America's "white" society. The definition of white has changed over time - and today, it is focused largely on skin colour. This hasn't always been the case.

In years past, would Prince of Persia star Jake Gyllenhaal been considered "white" by main street USA? While the Brokeback Mountain star's father is descended from Swedish nobles, his New York Jewish mother raised him Jewish - complete with a bar mitzvah at a homeless shelter so he could be thankful for all that he had. What about Alfred Molina? The English born actor, who plays Sheik Amar in the film, is the son of a Spanish father and Italian mother.

And the film's other major star, Sir Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji. His physician father was a Gujarati Indian who was born in Kenya, but later moved to England. His mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Eastern European Jew. Is he white?

The film's lead heroine Princess Tamina, played by former Bond Gemma Arterton appears to be a rather vanilla white person, being born in Kent, England. She was, however, born with six fingers. (She's that GTAIV art - personified!)

Concepts of race and colour are complex and ever changing. History has shown that, it will continue to show that.

Yes, it would have been great if the producers of Prince of Persia could have found Iranian actors for the film's leads. Iran has a vibrant film industry with internationally renowned filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami. The real shame is that Prince of Persia Jerry Bruckheimer felt he could not tap into the country's vast reservoir of talent. Or chose not to. Certainly, there might be political hurdles at stake, casting difficulties, or it could simply be box office draw.

Jake Gyllenhaal isn't Persian. Then again, he apparently isn't gay, either.



  • It is definitely a shame. Especially since they actually had someone up for the role initially who, besides being an accomplished equestrian, fencer, and had both basic acrobatic experience and prior acting experience under his belt, is a descendant of the actual Persian royal bloodline. And he looked exactly like the Sands of Time prince, to boot.

    But then again, he wasn’t a well-known Hollywood name. Selling movies is as much about the actor’s that have their names on it as it is about the actual film itself. Such a missed opportunity though.

    • I’ve seen a Japanese portrayal of Jesus as Japanese, so ‘whitewashing’ isn’t exactly restricted to white people.

      I think it should also be noted the current tension between Iran and the western world; that would have had some effect, I think.

      Also, Neil, he might have been an actor, but that doesn’t neccessarily mean he was a good one. He does sound amazing, but in the end it’s up to acting ability, which I believe Jake has.

      A brilliant article, all up. So many extremely valid and well-thought out points made. I’d just like to point out one thing, though, which is that Judaism is not a race, but a faith. But I think I know what you mean.

  • Lets get 1 thing straight Goku was never supposed to be Japanese, he was Saiyan. Now I’m not a huge casting agent but I am to believe that the selection of Saiyan actors in Hollywood is rather low.

    • I realise I’m beating a dead horse here, but I also would like to reiterate that Goku is not Asian, he is an alien. In fact no DB characters are Asian, as Dragon Ball is not set on our Earth and as such there is no Asia. Yeesh.

  • It’s BS, as Jake and Ben Kingsley are both Jewish, not “white”.

    I’m sure they probably could have found some actual Persians for the movie, but being Hollywood they actually need some “star power” for the film.

  • Good points but the issue really is their appearance rather than their ancestry.
    In the real world it does not matter but in a movie set in the middle east with middle eastern characters you would want the actors to look the part.
    That said, a movie based on a video game probably does need some star power to appeal the the masses and apart from skin tone they do look like the characters they are portraying.

    • It’s easy to dismiss this sort of issue when you’re part of the oppressive majority. Who cares? People whose race and culture are being “whitewashed” care. If you don’t understand why they care, then you’re ignorant.

      • I could agree with that if the portrayal in this and other movies like it were in any way exploitative, offensive, or stereotypical in any way, but nothing I’ve read about it so far suggests that this is the case. The story is not based on any existing cultural document, the games bore only a slight evocation of middle-eastern culture, and there is no sense whatsoever that a people are being deprived of revenue of royalties which are rightfully theirs.

        This is not to say that there are no movies that do any or all of these things, because there are. 300, which was only less fantastical in the sense that it bore a vague resemblance to historical events, did espouse an exaggerated, negative portrayal of the Persians, and yet its critical acclaim overshadowed the stir it caused. If you took the word Persia out of the title of this film, however, there is very little that would associate it with that culture.

        Where do we draw the line? Is it somehow less insensitive for an Australian actor to play a Scottish national hero, as in Braveheart, just because the skin tone is congruous? You have to ask yourself where to draw the line. Can Americans not play Canadians, or an actor from Boston a character from New Orleans. Acting is an art which transcends such petty divisions when it’s at its apex.

        This is a certainly a debate which needs to be had, but I don’t think a fantastical popcorn flick is really the most valid place to draw a line in the sand.

        • I think you missed the point of 300. The entire movie was a story told by the one survivor to stir the rest of the spartan army on. Of course he’s going to deamonise the enemy. The entire movie (And the comic book it’s based on) chose to instead of drawing on actual history, heavily researched how they told stories and exaggerated things (As seen in there pottery etc) which since it is a story being told makes sense.

          • So it’s legitimate to denigrate a people when you put a lot of thought into it, but not to innocently portray them with actors of a different racial heritage.

            Honestly, I think you’re absolutely right about 300, but I can’t understand why one is causing offence and the other not. There is nothing mean-spirited about how the Persians are portrayed in Prince of Persia, as far as I can gather.

  • Be realistic. A $150 million blockbuster isn’t going to make half its budget back if they chose unknown Middle-Easterners as leads.

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