You wait for one controversial casting choice, then another one comes along straight after.
The internet was still in fits of hysteria following Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the 13th Doctor, when Disney announced the leads for their live action version of Aladdin. It hasn’t gone down well.
Joining Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as the Genie is Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Scott, star of the recent Power Rangers film, is of British/Indian heritage, a fact that has upset some fans. Although the setting of the story is the fictional city of Agrabah, it’s still accepted that it is meant to represent a Middle Eastern location.
All of this means we’re having to discuss the issue of race-swapping characters again, and when – and if – it’s ever acceptable to do so.
On the one hand, it’s often done to update certain characters and stories for a modern setting. For example, Jon Watts, the director of Spiderman: Homecoming, wanted his cast to better reflect the racial diversity of 21st Century New York.
As laudable as those ambitions are, however, there is the view that altering the source material to that extent alienates some fans, who want to see their favourite characters on represented on screen as they are on the page.
Of course, there is a big difference between altering a character’s race in order to increase diversity (and doing so in a way that serves the story), and doing so in way that actually limits diversity.
Princess Jasmine’s race is important to the story in the sense that Aladdin is set in the Middle East, and therefore it’s logical that the characters will be a reflection of that setting. That is surely true of any fictional film: the characters are a reflection of the setting of the story in which they are taking part.
None of this should be read as a critique of Naomi Scott’s acting abilities. However, the casting is a disappointment for two main reasons. The first is that it’s rare to have a Hollywood film with leads of an Arabic or broadly Middle Eastern background, so in making this casting choice for Jasmine, Aladdin has missed the chance to fully embrace the opportunity for diversity that this film offers.
Secondly, the underlying implication (intentional or not) is that Hollywood sees all non-white actors, especially those with brown skin, as being more or less the same, and therefore interchangeable. It doesn’t matter what your actual background might be, if you don’t have white skin, then you’ll fit any non-white role.
The result is a kind of race-swapping that has the worst possible outcome: it denies a certain section of society a voice and representation. on screen. The fact that it’s happening to a group that is often under and miss-represented just adds further insult.
We make and watch films for many different reasons. One of those is surely to give a voice to people and subjects that need it, so that we’re all better informed. In denying a voice to anyone from any group or community, the film industry is failing in this most basic and fundamental of its obligations.