Disney has come under fire for reportedly “browning up” white actors on the Surrey, UK set of their live-action adaptation of Aladdin. According to The Sunday Times, Disney admitted to the practice and “says it resorted to darkening white people for roles requiring skills that could not be readily found in the Asian community, such as stunt men, dancers and camel handlers.” Given that London alone is home to more than a million people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Arab heritage, this “excuse” did not go over well.
Kaushal Odedra, who worked as an extra on the set, spoke to the Times about what he observed. “On one set, two palace guards came in and I recognised one as a Caucasian actor, but he was now a darkly tanned Arab,” he claimed. “I moved inside the marquee where there were 10 extras and two were Caucasian, but they had been heavily tanned to look Middle Eastern.”
“I asked a Saudi cast member what he made of having these extras being tanned so heavily,” he continued, “and he said it’s unfortunate, but this is how the industry works, and there’s no point complaining about it since it isn’t going to change. Also, if I’d wanted to discuss it, speaking to the almost entirely white crew seemed somewhat intimidating.”
However, two casting professionals who spoke to The Sunday Times said that this is not normal practice. We’ve never been asked for actors to brown up,” said Martin Ayers, the director of a professional extras agency. Laura Shepphard, who works for a casting company that supplied some of the extras for Aladdin, said, “If we don’t have enough people of a particular ethnic group on our books, we will source people from the required group.”
In response to the reports in the press, Disney issued a statement: “This is the most diverse cast ever assembled for a Disney live action production. More than 400 of the 500 background performers were Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and Asian.”
Personally, I do at least understand Disney casting some extras of multiple races. Since Agrabah is a fictional place which (rather problematically) draws elements from a dozen different Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, they could easily decide to portray it as a more multicultural center of trade, with the kind of diversity you might have seen in historic Rome or Carthage. Agrabah as a predominantly Arab city, but with enough wealth to have drawn some people from all over, makes sense – and it would push back against racist portrayals by showing a city that mimics the cosmopolitan, global cities that actually existed in the historic Middle East. Plus, it’s going to be incredibly uncomfortable if the only black character in this movie is Will Smith’s magical servant Genie, so I think adding more black actors is a very necessary and very good idea.
However, “browning up” a bunch of white extras is neither necessary nor good. It’s deeply offensive. It suggests an understanding of diversity as window dressing and nothing more, and it’s especially galling given that Disney had already come under fire regarding the casting for Aladdin, after a Hollywood Reporter article suggested that the search for their male lead was made especially difficult “since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.” Coming back now and suggesting that even the extras are too difficult to cast is … truly something else. Disney isn’t even limiting their search to Arabs, but also including actors of desi heritage, so they have a truly huge net of talent to choose from – even more so on a set that’s only a 50-minute drive from London. Seriously.
The film has cast Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) as Jasmine. Will Smith will play the Genie, and Tunisian-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari (Ben-Hur) will play Jafar.
Aladdin provided some deeply problematic, but deeply important representation for a lot of kids. Please, Disney, just do this respectfully, and give underrepresented actors the chance to shine in a big-budget spectacle of a production.
(Via The Independent ; image: Walt Disney Studios)
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