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John Oliver explains the long, frustrating history of white actors playing nonwhite roles

One week before the Oscars, the host lambasted the unfortunate practice of whitewashing.

That's Indian character Ben Jabituya from the 1986 movie Short Circuit, who was played by white actor Fisher Stevens in brownface.
That's Indian character Ben Jabituya from the 1986 movie Short Circuit, who was played by white actor Fisher Stevens in brownface.

With just a week to go before the 2016 Oscars (which will be held Sunday, February 28), John Oliver's Last Week Tonight team came in under the wire to deliver a scathing examination of Hollywood's continued insistence on casting white actors in nonwhite roles.

Or, in Last Week Tonight's words, "Hollywood whitewashing: How is this still a thing?" Here's the full segment:

Oliver cites several recent examples of white actors playing nonwhite characters

The segment kicks off with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which began in 2015 but has seen an unfortunate resurgence in 2016 due to all the Oscars' acting nominees being white, for the second year in a row. It then addresses the theory that Hollywood just doesn't have enough good roles for nonwhite actors: "One of the reasons for this might be that when there are roles for nonwhite actors, they still get played by white people."

From there, Last Week Tonight's examples fly fast and furious. There are plenty of modern examples of whitewashing, like Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead in Prince of Persia and Emma Stone playing a part-Chinese pilot in Cameron Crowe's Aloha.

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings gets special flak, including a clip of the director explaining to Variety why he casts white men in Middle Eastern biblical roles:

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. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.

"Yeah," Last Week Tonight's narrator cuts in, throwing up a picture of white Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. "You need the white-hot star power of whoever the fuck this guy is":

This is not an Egyptian actor.
20th Century Fox

For the record: The actor pictured above is Joel Edgerton, a good actor who's nevertheless a) a white Australian man, and b) still working his way past, "Hey, it's that guy!" status.

Point taken, Last Week Tonight.

Last Week Tonight also digs into Hollywood history

The show also offers plenty of older examples — the better to contextualize Hollywood's longstanding practice of whitewashing. This includes a cringe-inducing montage of actors like Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn playing exaggerated Asian characters.

The show even points to the New York Times's original 1961 review of Breakfast at Tiffany's, which praised Mickey Rooney's astonishingly clichéd portrayal of a "bucktoothed, myopic Japanese" as "broadly exotic."

At that point, the narrator's sarcasm takes a turn for the fiery.

"The historical figure you're playing wasn't white? Not a problem!" it says, while a picture of Donna Reed as Sacagawea in The Far Horizons appears onscreen.


"The contemporary figure you're playing wasn't white? Not a problem!" it says, cutting to white British actor Jim Sturgess in Las Vegas card-counting drama 21. The movie tells the true story of an Asian-American MIT student named Jeff Ma, but changed his name to "Ben Campbell" to accommodate a white actor playing the part.

"The cartoon the movie was based on was entirely about nonwhite people? Not a problem!" it chirps, throwing up side-by-side stills from the original TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and M. Night Shyamalan's largely white cast for the movie.

"Your characters are named Esteban and Clara from the Isabel Allende novel the movie is based on? Right this way, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep!" it chortles, showing the pair as The House of the Spirits' originally Chilean protagonists.


It's a powerful, damning set of examples, and the rest of Last Week Tonight's argument is no less blunt.

For all the scathing whitewashing examples the video spits out, the tenor of Oliver's takedown is perhaps best summed up by the narrator trying to make sense of Tom Cruise's casting in the title role of 2003's The Last Samurai.

tom cruise samurai

Tom Cruise: samurai. (Warner Bros)

"Really?" it asks, cutting between Cruise scowling in samurai gear and Cruise sliding around in socks for Risky Business. "This guy is the last samurai? Fuck you."

It's blunt, but also just about the perfect combination of exhausted, confused, and angry that this ongoing issue deserves.

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