This editorial is a part of a new column at The Young Folks called “Editors Note.” The column aims to discuss topics currently prevalent in Hollywood.
Growing up, there weren’t any Middle Eastern characters or characters of Middle Eastern descent in the landscape of film and television. To this day, there is still very little representation of Middle Eastern people who aren’t stereotypical terrorists and, if they ever do appear, they’re background characters or there to help white people (sometimes in their own land, see: Indiana Jones, The Mummy as examples). So when it was announced that there would be a live-action Aladdin, I was beyond ecstatic. Finally, a movie that had once been one of the only positive representations of Middle Eastern people onscreen was now getting the live-action treatment. But Disney’s adaptation of the beloved animated classic has already hit several bumps in the road–from rumors of not being able to find a Middle Eastern cast, to “browning up” the extras on set–Disney’s inability to properly understand the importance of representation and the need to self-insert a white character where he doesn’t belong proves that the studio, and Hollywood in general, still struggles.
Prior to announcing the cast, there had been speculation that Disney struggled to find any Middle Eastern or North African actors who could sing and dance for the movie (which, in Hollywood, is always a bullshit excuse to continue hiring only white actors). Largely, the cast hired are ethnically Middle Eastern–including Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar–and that’s really great. However, Disney struck out when it was announced that Billy Magnussen would be joining the cast as Prince Anders. This prince, a character who was created specifically for the live-action film, is a white man and it’s not lost on me that it’s probably the reason behind his casting. In the animated Aladdin, there were no white characters to speak of. Why? Because the film took place in the Middle East. Why was the animated film ok with having all of their characters be Middle Eastern but not the live-action? Why does Disney feel the need to create an entirely new character (a prince, no less) so a white actor can be included? Magnussen’s presence is both unnecessary and an example of how Hollywood likes to insert white male characters into stories regardless of their setting.
Certainly Guy Ritchie (Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) directing Aladdin had a hand in Magnussen’s casting. He’s also a co-writer for the film. The original movie wasn’t written by anyone of Middle Eastern ethnicity and so Disney had an opportunity to change that with their live-action, but they still couldn’t be bothered to hire diverse voices. I’m not saying that it can’t or won’t be a successful film, because it will be, but the minor touches of someone with any kind of Middle Eastern background would’ve added a bit more authenticity to the movie. Ritchie, thus far, has directed several films, but none of them had more than one person of color in the cast, if at all. Suffice it to say that Ritchie’s movie input will be through the lens of his own perception of Middle Eastern people and their story.
So many people ask why representation matters and the answer is simple: film and television are sometimes one of the only gateways into someone else’s life experiences and when that experience isn’t treated with respect and made to be authentic, negative stereotypes and misrepresentation are often the outcome. Misrepresentation and an imbalance of characterization lead to skewed versions of the Middle East and its people. And in many films where they’re often playing terrorists or war-lords–or in the case of Tyrant and Prince of Persia, white guys pretending to be Middle Eastern– representation is even more important; Aladdin can really open the door for even more positive representation in mainstream films.
With all of the discussions surrounding diversity and there needing to be more of it, there should also be a discussion regarding the perceived interchangeability of people of color. And by that I mean how Hollywood often finds one person of color to replace a more accurate representation for what the role actually calls for. Just one example is when Freida Pinto and Reece Ritchie were cast in Desert Dancer, a film about an Iranian man named Afshin Ghaffarian who risks persecution in order to start a dance company. Neither Pinto or Ritchie were Iranian or of Iranian descent.
With regards to Aladdin, there were so many outspoken people on Twitter fancasting actors like Kumail Nanjiani or Dev Patel to play Aladdin. And while Aladdin may have taken some inspiration from Indian culture (evident in the palace’s likeness to the Taj Mahal), the film itself has always been branded as taking place in the Middle East, near the “River Jordan” to be exact, and references this by using several Arabic words, as well as with the characters’ names. To be fair, Disney messed up at the beginning with the animated version and is at fault for creating any cultural confusion or stereotypes (the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee pressured Disney to change a line with the word “barbaric” in the song). Regardless, it’s still fairly clear where the movie is set and if the song “Arabian Nights” doesn’t make it obvious that the film takes place in the Middle East, then I’m not really sure what to tell you. The point is, people of color are not interchangeable and Disney seemed to choose its lane with the original film and now with the live-action version with the casting of Jafar and Aladdin specifically.
Even rarer than seeing a man of Middle Eastern ethnicity onscreen is seeing a woman of Middle Eastern ethnicity onscreen. In mainstream media, they’re practically non-existent. Last year, there was a hashtag on social media called #FirstTimeISawMe. Created by Netflix, the hashtag was used for people to express the first time they saw themselves onscreen in terms of representation. The first time I saw me was in Princess Jasmine. The thing is, Middle Eastern people range in skin tone. From dark to light, we’re as diverse as the dialects across the region. For lighter-skinned Arabs, like Tony Shalhoub and Kathy Najimy, they had a tendency to be coded as white so any aspects of their ethnicity or cultural background were never mentioned or completely erased. Princess Jasmine was the first Middle Eastern woman I could see myself in and it remained that way for years. It’s one of the reasons Aladdin is so close to my heart and why Naomi Scott’s casting–she’s half English, half Indian–stings a little and her casting is another example of interchangeability.
Disney may have proved they at least weren’t going to cast Tom Hardy as Jafar, but just because they have a largely Middle Eastern cast doesn’t mean they still aren’t screwing up. And screw up they continued to do when it was revealed that the production was hiring white extras and “browning” them up to look more Middle Eastern. Why is it that the very opposite is never true when it comes to Hollywood? When Disney cast for Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, they weren’t concerned with hiring more diverse actors, but somehow the white actor and extras wind up in a film like Aladdin? So it seems Hollywood only cares for inclusion when it’s to ensure the next mediocre white actor gets his shot, even though it’s been proven over and over again these same opportunities aren’t provided to people of color.
One can appreciate that Disney is delving into their more diverse animated slate instead of continuing to make safer live-actions like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, but Disney’s, and Hollywood’s, continued inability to understand just why browning someone up is offensive or why they need to self-insert unnecessary white characters into narratives that aren’t about them is a problem. Things that seem like small hiccups or blips on the radar speak to a larger problem in the industry and one that continues to be defended despite its inherent wrongness.