Can You Whitewash (Potentially) White People?
They also note this weekend’s release of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a live-action adaptation of a video game that stars white actor Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role instead of an actor with a Middle Eastern background.
“This part really needed to go to someone who’s Persian,” said Jehanzeb Dar, a blogger and independent filmmaker who is a fan of the video game but has no intention of supporting the movie.
“It’s not only insulting to Persians, it’s also insulting to white people. It’s saying white people can’t enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white,” he said.
Far be it from me to appear the defender of either Jerry Bruckheimer or Jake Gyllenhaal, but is this right? [Sidenote: I very much enjoy his sister Maggie’s acting.]
The question I have is around the concept of Persian as non-white. I’m cognizant of the difficulty inherent in the polysemous nature of the word Persian, but still this doesn’t seem quite right to me. Persian as a language (really Farsi) is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. So we should have a Persian playing the role means we should have an English-speaking film with a native Persian speaker as the actor?
Persian also of course refers to a “people”, which as this Wiki helpfully points out is a more challenging construct given the history of the Persian Empire and inter-mixing of ethnicities across the Central Asian plateau. But generally speaking Persians are considered Aryan (i.e. white/Indo-European) in nature–see video below for more.
Persian in its current formation today typically means Iranian, a term often used interchangeably with Persian, but also having certain difficulties in terms of this discussion (re: national borders, languages, and ethnicities). As an example of the complexity, Azeris make up a significant percentage of the Iranian population, though they too could be considered (at least partially) white (i.e. Caucasian), but are not Persian. Though also there is Turkic influence there as well. If you look at this picture of Azeri young women, Maggie Gyllenhaal could basically fit in there skin-tone wise, right?
What does “Middle Eastern background” mean exactly in this context, particularly in relation to actors? He’s not Arab? But Persians aren’t Arabs. If Persian is a variation of Aryan, then why can’t Gyllenhaal pass for that? If I’m missing something completely obvious, please anyone let me know. Especially given the more or less ancient/medieval timeline of the (admittedly fictitious) video game upon which the movie is based….Greek influence (including genetic) via Alexander’s conquests was rampant throughout Persia all the way through Afghanistan to India.
I realize given the history of blackface, North African Moses played by Charlton Heston and so on, this is a sensitive topic. But I’m not quite sure I get this one. On the flip side, if we changed the term Persian and white with gay and straight, would we want to argue that a gay actor can’t play a straight guy* or vice versa (this would be particularly relevant in this case of Gyllenhaal).
If this matters, Gyllenhaal’s mother is Jewish. Her maiden name Sachs is Ashkenazi (of Germanic origin), i.e. of European Jewry. Interestingly, Gyllenhaal identifies himself more as Jewish (in the Jewish tradition of mothers bearing the tradition), rather than his father’s Swedish ancestry. Granted his mother is of European Jewry and we therefore get into the vexed question of the historical lineage and ethnic makeup of European Jewry (if his mother’s side was Sephardic there would probably be no ability to say he couldn’t play Middle Eastern, unless one meant Muslim by Middle Eastern, which given Persian history would be rather anachronistic since the classic Persian and Parthian Empires existed centuries before the rise of Islam). If it were say shown that his mother’s Jewish heritage traces back to Palestine/Israel, would that qualify as Middle Eastern background?
Here’s Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani making the same point (minute 1, NSFW at the end):
* Given many of the League’s profound embrace of Neil Patrick Harris playing Barney on How I Met Your Mother, we can throw that out the window.