Can We Celebrate Instead of Throw Shade at Disney’s Diverse Cast of Aladdin?
Disney has come under criticism with its casting announcement over the weekend for the lead roles in the live-action remake of Aladdin. In particular it is the casting of Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine that has sparked the most outcry for ‘treating brown people as interchangeable‘. Scott – who rose to fame in the role of the Pink Ranger in this year’s Power Rangers reboot – is of British, Ugandan and Gujarati Indian heritage. Despite Aladdin being located in the fictional make-believe country of Agrabah, it’s assumed that the country would be in the Middle East because of the character’s names and cultural references. Social media frenzy has had Disney under fire for not casting an actor of Arab heritage for the role.
A movie junkie, I have been reading play by play updates about the casting. And it has been a lengthy process. THR reported that roughly 2000 actors read for the roles of Jasmine and Aladdin in a “massive global search”. When it was reported last week that Director Guy Ritchie was having a hard time casting his Aladdin “especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent” admittedly the fear of ‘please don’t white-wash’ crept in for me too.
However, during that same time reports were floating around that Disney was interested in “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” actor Riz Ahmed. Social media buzz was all for it, along with Bollywood starlets Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone. There wasn’t trash talk against the studio about an Arab-only cast then. The public was eagerly rallying for their favourite ‘Middle Eastern and South Asian actors’ for the roles. At that point people just didn’t want to see the film get white-washed. The fallout came afterward.
Fast-forward to Disney’s D23 Expo. Mena Massoud, a Canadian-Egyptian along with Naomi Scott, of British-Indian heritage are announced as Prince Ali and Jasmine — the studio followed through with what they said they were going to do — but now there is a new bone of contention — they are not both of Middle Eastern background.
Where To Draw The Line Between Correctness and Creativity
I am very well aware of the lack of diversity in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera. And especially when it comes to lead roles for actors of colour in movies and on television. So, I asked my own diverse social circle what they thought about this cast and the majority of comments were supportive of the selection. And I agree. When it comes to the casting for this particular film, I don’t feel that Disney took us for a ride and think they cast the right leads for the roles. Here’s a few reasons why:
1) Agrabah Is a Fictional Land. Like many tales it is inspired by real places and cultures and clearly Arabian culture and the Middle East is central to this tale. However, there are Indian elements infused as well like Princess Jasmine’s pet tiger Rajah and the Sultan’s Palace that is reminiscent of Taj Mahal. Oh and then there’s the little known fact that the original Aladdin story was actually set in China. Aladdin is one of the stories compiled in The Thousand and One Nights — a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales. So….there’s that. Now should these characters be of Middle Eastern, Indian or Chinese descent? Talking about make-believe lands, heard of San Fransokyo? It’s the fictional city where Disney’s animated film Big Hero 6 takes place. It is an urban mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo. If Disney were to ever make a live-action of this film who could they possibly cast? There is an element of magic & artistic vision in film-making — in fact it’s integral. We have to allow artists their creative story-telling to unfold as they see fit — after all they are telling their fictional story through their eyes.
2) Talent comes first. Disney clearly made a conscious effort to cast Middle Eastern or Indian actors with the lengthy casting process and open casting call — but the actors also had to be the best for the roles and being star-crossed lovers also had to have great chemistry with each other. But it also isn’t the first time that Disney has gone to lengths in its casting process. There was an exhaustive 2500 actor search to play a young Han Solo for an upcoming Star Wars prequel. Guy Ritchie’s no fool, and I would like to believe that talent was held above all else as the gold standard to tell this tale too. And shouldn’t we want that? Take a step back to see that this film is featuring 3 leads played by highly talented & diverse actors. I think we should be celebrating this instead of clouding it with so much negativity. I am also not upset that Scott is half-British. We are living in 2017. We have multi-cultural families. My children are Indian-Guyanese-Spanish-Canada — will they be denied opportunities because they are too light, too dark, not enough of any? It’s a slippery slope and one I don’t care to ride. On the flip side, I respect the feelings of the disappointment from Little Mix‘s Jade Thirlwall fans. Jade, of Egyptian and Yemeni descent, was reportedly a front-runner for the role of Jasmine. While I can see that some Middle Eastern people feel their representation was taken this is not a real-life story where someone is being misrepresented. I can’t justify undermining the celebration for the actors that did land the lead roles by crying foul for those that didn’t.
3) This cast displays a step in the right direction for Hollywood. I was thrilled when I heard about fellow Canadian Mena Massoud cast as Prince Ali. Massoud, raised in Ontario, Canada had his breakout TV part in 2011 as an Al Qaeda operative in a 2011 episode of spy series Nikita. (Nothing stereotypical there). In a recent interview Massoud said “I can’t compete for roles that require me to be Caucasian or African American, even if those characters really connect with me and intrigue me. The competition may be less, some people would say, but the amount of work to be had is less as well. However, I think the industry is growing more and more and starting to support actors of all cultural backgrounds.” For Massoud and Scott, both relative new-comers, Disney has granted these young actors their Hollywood wishes with these lead roles. And I am happy for them.
They haven’t always gotten it right, but lessons learned and Disney is starting to do things differently. Last night I watched the new trailer for Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time directed by Ava DuVernay and literally got the chills. “I saw myself in it, and I saw so many different kinds of people in it,” said DuVernay. She said of the film’s diverse cast that she wanted to assemble a group of people “that looked like you, that looked like the real world.” I am excited about the upcoming year for film and hope that Disney and the other major studios will continue with this step in the right direction — one that showcases more diversity, inclusivity, and heroes & sheroes that are a reflection of more of us in the real world.
4) You can’t please all the people all the time. Social media can be a double-edged sword. It makes us more aware of issues around us but can also be a stomping ground for racist rants and hate. However social media shouldn’t dictate our moral code. We have to strive to do the right thing and be our best with the understanding that even the best may not be good enough for everyone. (It’s a wide world and that little blue bird gets around). Some could see Mena Massoud’s choice as questionable. Yes, Egypt is an Arab country. Its official name is the Arab Republic of Egypt, it is a member of the Arab League and its people speak Arabic. But “all the invasions that Egypt has experienced over millennia, including the Arab invasion, do not seem to account for more than 15% of modern Egyptians’ ancestry. So Egyptians are not genetically Arabs, but they may be so culturally and linguistically” according to The Guardian. So should we re-think his role too? You can always find an argument to support you position. But to what end? Some have cried cultural appropriation. But I don’t think that is the case here either. I think Disney set out to find the best Middle Eastern or Indian actors for their tale of Agrabah and have done just that.
Will Smith is not blue but we don’t seem to be complaining about that — not yet. For now, I’m going to sit back and wait to see who will be cast as Jafar and the Sultan — whoever they are I’m sure there will be some green with envy, others red with rage and all the colours of the rainbow in between.