Is It Right For Leonardo DiCaprio to Play Persian Poet Rumi?

Leonardo DiCaprio 112315 The Revenant - 1
Leonardo DiCaprio

A storm of angry criticism has been raging over the internet since writer David Franzoni, who won an Oscar for writing “Gladiator,” revealed in an interview with the Guardian, that he would be working on a biopic about the 13th century Persian-Muslim Poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi and that he would be casting Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. Within minutes of the interview’s publication, he was accused of whitewashing in postings under hashtags #RumiWasntWhite and #whitewashingout.

The practice of whitewashing has been around since the early days of Hollywood, when directors cast white actors to play ethnic roles, due, apparently, to lack of professional non-white actors. In 1915, white actors, painted in black, stood in for African American characters in D.W. Griffith’s epic “The Birth of a Nation.” A few years later,  Italian Rudolph Valentino and American Douglas Fairbank inhabited the lead Arab characters in “The Sheik (1921)” and “The Thief of Bagdad (1924) respectively. Even David Lean’s masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia (1962),” which gave birth to the first Arab international star Omar Sharif, featured western actors in major Arab roles, such as Alec Guinness, who played prince Feisal, with his face painted brown.

In spite of the emergence of Asian, African, Native American and Middle-Eastern professional actors, the practice of whitewashing casting remains endemic in Hollywood. Most recently, “The Gods of Egypt,” featured European actors in all the main Egyptian roles with no Egyptian actors in sight. Two years earlier, Cameron Crowe cast blonde actress, Emma Stone, as the lead in the biopic of a Hawaiian-Asian woman in “Aloha.” And in his biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott chose Welsh Christian Bale, Australian Joel Edgerton and American Sigourney Weaver to play Moses, Pharaoh and his mother respectively. So why does Hollywood persist in practicing whitewashing?

The answer to this question was articulated by Ridley Scott in an interview with trade magazine Variety, in which he defended his casting choices in Exodus. “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.”  [Read my interview with Ridley Scott]

Indeed, film projects, particularly epics like Exodus with $140 million budget, are not green lit by filmmakers but by financiers, who invariably insist on having a bankable star in a picture in order to invest in it. Financiers don’t read screenplays and seldom show interest in the film’s story; the only question they pose to a filmmaker is: “Who is in it?” So the filmmaker is left with two choices: either to make a cheap movie with an unknown ethnic actor for a niche market or make a star-studded epic that could draw wide audiences from all over the world.

Stars are a commercial commodity and often accompany producers on fund-raising missions at major film markets around the world in order to confirm in person to potential financiers their commitment to projects. Without the presence of a star, securing finance for a movie becomes an arduous task and sometimes a mission-impossible.

The importance of casting a star in a project was evident at Cannes Film market a couple of months ago. Attending producers, who arrived to raise funds for their future projects, complained that Hollywood’s obsession with making superhero movies around the clock and the plethora of TV series productions -both take ample time to shoot- left no time for the stars to work on other movies. Consequently, the majority of the projects left Cannes unfunded.

It’s well known that directors, irrespective of ethnicity, endeavour to coax stars into taking part in their movies, because they are fully aware that a star could ignite the interest of the media and critics in a film, galvanise a wide audience into watching it, increase its profitability at the box office and improve its chances in winning awards.

Six years ago, a renown Arab filmmaker, who was working on the biopic of a Muslim commander, Khalid Bin Waleed, who defeated the Roman and Persian Empires, told me that he was hoping to cast George Clooney in the lead role, because he wanted to introduce this unsung hero to the whole world, something he would not achieve by casting an Arab actor in the role. This notion was not missed on Syrian-Hollywood director, Mustafa Akkad, who, in 1978, cast Hollywood stars to plays the companions of the prophet Muhammad in his epic “The Message.” His casting decision paid off. The movie reached wide international audiences, who were introduced to the birth of Islam on the big screen for the first time in history from the perspective of a Muslim director. So why are so many Mideasterners and Muslims up in arms against casting a superstar like DiCaprio, who could garner a lot of attention to a Muslim scholar?

Hollywood is a business, and hence it will continue to employ whoever is bankable. So instead of pillorying it, DiCaprio’s casting critics should start with supporting films featuring ethnic actors in lead roles, by encouraging people to watch them, because their commercial success will elevate their actors to stardom. But as long as the masses keep flocking to cinemas to see movies starring the likes of DiCaprio, Hollywood will continue to fulfill their desire. Green, not white, is Hollywood’s favourite color.

During the Oscars season earlier this year, I was invited by several Middle-Eastern TV networks to commentate on the nominated films and talent. Whenever I tried to talk about the two nominated Arab movies and their directors, I was interjected with a question about DiCaprio’s nomination. In fact, the Middle-Eastern media paid little attention to their nominated talent, for they were preoccupied in analysing DiCaprio’s thoughts and actions. Evidently, if DiCaprio doesn’t play Rumi’s character, even Rumi’s own people won’t be interested in his biopic.

The irony is that the goal of the makers of this biopic is to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Muslim characters — who often appear as terrorists, belly dancers or desert-dwellers— in Hollywood movies. If they cast a Middle Eastern actor instead of DiCaprio in the lead role, then they will fail in their stated mission because most likely nobody will bother watching the picture.

The job of an actor is merely portraying a character on the screen, not stealing his identity. Didn’t Omar Sharif play western characters in so many movies and garnered an Oscar nomination for inhabiting a Russian doctor in “Dr. Zhivago?”

In my view, the focus should not be on who plays the role, but on how it’s portrayed, which is the job of the writer and director. The actor is mainly a tool, that the director uses to mold and sculpt the character through his directions and subsequent editing. Therefore, the ethnicity of the director will probably make far more impact on the outcome of the movie, because Rumi’s character will be the product of his vision, regardless of the actor’s ethnicity. A superstar, like DiCaprio, on the other hand, will ensure great publicity for the film and Rumi.

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