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Hollywood whitewashing: Rumi set to be played by DiCaprio

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

When Hollywood came out with Exodus: Gods and Kings last year, the world was a little confused. A story about the ancient Egyptians and Jews was being acted out by a main cast of very, very white people. Ramses, one of the greatest Egyptian pharaohs, was played by Joel Edgerton, an Australian whose closest connection to anything Arab was when he was part of the team in Zero Dark Thirty that killed an Arab - Osama bin Laden.

Of course there was an outcry and of course people weren't happy. The movie tanked and Hollywood learned their lesson. Which is why David Franzoni, the screenwriter for Gladiator, decided he would do something to change Hollywood's largely-white status quo.

Unlike the rest of Hollywood - those bigoted bastards who only cast Muslims as terrorists - Franzoni grandly announced that he wanted to do something to "challenge Muslim stereotypes". He wanted to write a script that celebrated the golden age of Islam - a time where Islam celebrated philosophy, art, poetry and romance. And what epitomises that better than Rumi?

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A poet, philosopher, Islamic scholar and sufi mystic, Rumi's writings have not only survived the test of time, they've set him apart as one of the greatest poets in human history. Over 700 years after his death, Rumi is the best-selling poet in the US. So, when Franzoni said he wanted to challenge stereotypes, and with Rumi no less, why wouldn't we be beside ourselves with excitement?

There was just one problem though - Franzoni wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi. After all, what could challenge Muslim stereotypes more than making audiences believe that ancient Iranian scholars looked like Leonardo DiCaprio, a man so Hollywood he was actually born there.

Maybe Franzoni thought this was a compliment to the billions of Muslims worldwide. An Oscar-award winning actor agreeing to play a Muslim? What could possibly make white people like Muslims more? That question was meant to be rhetorical, but Franzoni actually had an answer - Robert Downey Jr as Rumi's spiritual mentor.

That's right, Hollywood seems to believe that to make Muslims acceptable to the wider world, they have to be white. No, not just fair, like most Iranians, but good old fashioned white people - like White Jesus.

Hollywood's whitewashing problem

Hollywood is fast running out of white-centric plots to build movies around. Heck, they've even gotten desperate enough to turn Tetris into a movie. But, in their quest to find new plotlines, they've started to look beyond the borders of the US and other mostly-white countries for new stories to enthral the public.

The problem is that even when they find these stories, they cannot seem to get beyond their whitewashed vision for the silver screen. It's why Goku, a Japanese anime superhero from Dragon Ball Z, was played by a white man. All the characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose story starred little to no white people, were played by white people, and why Gerard Butler was chosen to play an Egyptian God.

When roles meant for everyone but white people end up going to white people, is it any surprise then that the Oscars featured an almost-entirely white list of nominees. And, with Hollywood continuing this trend, even in their attempts to fight against exactly this, can we ever hope for this to change? Probably not.

Luckily, while Hollywood may not be sincere about fighting this whitewashing, John Oliver, a man who's fast becoming mankind's only reliable moral compass, will.

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First published: 10 June 2016, 5:12 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.