200 years of authenticity (or lack thereof) in casting


American entertainment has a long, complicated history when it comes to authenticity in casting. Here’s a look at some of the milestones that have led to the modern conversation about who has the right to play which roles.

1830: Blackface

Blackface minstrel shows begin their ascent in popular culture. Touring song-and-dance jubilees perpetuate racial stereotypes using predominantly white performers wearing black greasepaint or shoe polish to darken their skin and exaggerate their lips.

Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee, circa 1900 (Strobridge & Co. Lith.)

1927: ‘The Jazz Singer’

Al Jolson stars in a major hit of the burgeoning “talkie” era in which he performs in blackface.

Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer," which famously featured the performer in blackface. (Los Angeles Times)
(Unknown Photographer / Los Angeles Times)

1936: ‘Swing Time’

Fred Astaire appears in blackface during a solo routine called “Bojangles of Harlem,” meant to evoke African American dancer Bill Robinson.

Fred Astaire in the number "Bojangles of Harlem" from the film "Swing Time."

1938: Judy Garland

One year before she would become an icon for “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland appeared in blackface in the film “Everybody Sing.”

Before she became a star Judy Garland sang in blackface in "Everybody Sing."

1944: Hepburn as a Chinese woman

Katharine Hepburn was made up to look Chinese in the war drama “Dragon Seed.”

Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in “Dragon Seed.” (

1953: Yes, even Bugs Bunny

Looney Tunes’ cartoon star Bugs Bunny appeared in blackface in an episode — now largely scrubbed from the Internet — titled “Southern Fried Rabbit.”

Bugs Bunny wore blackface in a 1953 cartoon

1961: Mr. Yunioshi

One of the most memorable and egregious instances of yellowface occurs in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in which racial stereotypes shape Mickey Rooney’s performance as a Japanese character.

Mickey Rooney in the trailer for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Trailer screenshot)

1965: ‘Othello’

Laurence Olivier plays the Moor on film. The casting decision is roundly criticized during a time of civil rights upheaval.

Laurence Olivier portrays Othello in blackface in the 1965 film. (Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times / Los Angeles Times)

1971: Straight as gay

Peter Finch becomes the first straight actor to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a gay character in John Schlesinger’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Murray Head, left, and Peter Finch in John Schlesinger's "Sunday Bloody Sunday." (Kobal Collection / United Artists)
(UNITED ARTISTS/KOBAL COLLECTION / United Artists/Kobal Collection)

1982: Linda Hunt

Actress Linda Hunt plays an Asian man in Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.” She goes on to win the Oscar for supporting actress.

Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously." (MGM /UA / The Kobal Collection)

1983: ‘Tootsie’

Dustin Hoffman is nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his portrayal of a man who pretends to be a woman to land a role in a soap opera.

Dustin Hoffman in the 1982 movie "Tootsie," in which he played a man pretending to be a woman. (Columbia Pictures / Columbia TriStar Home Video)
(Columbia Pictures / Columbia TriStar Home Video)

1985: A very personal Oscar win

Haing Somnang Ngor became the first — and only — Asian actor to win a supporting actor Oscar. He portrayed Cambodian journalist and refugee Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields.” Ngor was himself a Cambodian refugee who survived three terms in Cambodian prison camps. He was a practicing surgeon and gynecologist in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country in 1975.

Haing S. Ngor, left, with Sam Waterston in the 1985 movie "The Killing Fields." (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Haing S. Ngor, left, with Sam Waterston in the 1985 movie “The Killing Fields.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

1987: Marlee Matlin

The actress becomes the first — and only — deaf performer to win an Oscar. The award comes for her portrayal of a troubled deaf janitor who begins an affair with a hearing teacher at a deaf school in “Children of a Lesser God.”

William Hurt and Marlee Matlin in "Children of a Lesser God." (Takashi Seida / Paramount)
(Takashi Seida / Paramount)

1989: ‘Miss Saigon’

The musical opens in London with white actor Jonathan Pryce wearing prosthetics to change the shape of his eyes for his role as the Engineer. The resulting furor spreads condemnation of the practice.

West End preview performance of "Miss Saigon," featuring Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer.

1993: ‘Philadelphia’

Hollywood takes on AIDS. Oscar rewards the effort the next year by bestowing lead actor honors to Tom Hanks, who plays a gay man dying of the disease.

Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS in "Philadelphia." (Ken Regan)
(Ken Regan)

2000: Brandon Teena

In an Oscar first, acting honors go to someone portraying a transgender character. Hilary Swank wins for playing Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Hilary Swank played a transgender man in "Boys Don't Cry," directed by Kimberly Peirce. (Bill Matlock / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
(Bill Matlock / ©Fox Searchlight Pictures)

2005: Close enough?

The film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” about Japanese history and culture, awards the three leading roles to actresses of Chinese and Malaysian descent. Some Asian groups take offense at the implications; director Rob Marshall responds by telling The Times “my only criteria was who's the best person for the role.”

Singaporean-Chinese actress Gong Li starred in the movie, "Memoirs of a Geisha." (David James / Columbia Pictures)
(David James / Columbia Pictures)

2008: Brownface?

“Saturday Night Live” raised eyebrows with the decision to have Fred Armisen — of white, Asian and Venezuelan heritage — play then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in dark makeup.

Fred Armisen played President Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live." (Dana Edelson / NBC Universal Inc.)
(Dana Edelson / © NBC Universal, Inc)

2013: Meet Tonto, a.k.a. Johnny Depp

The actor plays the famed Native American warrior, complete with feathered headdress and tribal makeup, in Disney’s version of “The Lone Ranger.”

Johnny Depp as Tonto in the movie. "The Lone Ranger." (Peter Mountain / Disney)
(Peter Mountain / Disney)

2014: ‘Transparent’

Jill Soloway’s streaming dramedy series earns high praise for its treatment of transgender characters and its inclusion of trans people behind the scenes. Jeffrey Tambor’s acclaimed performance as Maura Pfefferman later earns him a Golden Globe and two Emmys.

Jeffrey Tambor, as Maura Pfefferman in season three of "Transparent."
(Jennifer Clasen /)

2015: Meet Allison Ng, a.k.a. Emma Stone

Cameron Crowe’s film “Aloha” elicits some groans before it even hits theaters over the idea of Emma Stone playing a character of Asian and Hawaiian heritage.

Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe's "Aloha." (Neal Preston / Columbia Pictures)
(Neal Preston / AP)

2016: Zoe as Nina

Actress Zoe Saldana plays black jazz and blues legend Nina Simone in the biopic “Nina.” Simone fans cry foul at her light skin, but Saldana says she is a proud black and Latina woman.

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the biopic "Nina." (Suzanne Tenner)
(Suzanne Tenner / Suzanne Tenner)

2017: ‘Glass Menagerie,’ revisited

Wheelchair-bound actress Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, stars as Laura in director Sam Gold’s Broadway production.

Madison Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy, played Laura on Broadway in “A Glass Menagerie” opposite Sally Field and Joe Mantello. (Julieta Cervantes)



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