These are boom times for makers of brown-colored makeup in Los Angeles.
Gladiator scribe David Franzoni and Se7en producer Stephen Joel Brown are working on a film about the life of 13th century poet, scholar, and mystic Rumi, whose words you may have seen quoted on bumper stickers or on your friends’ Facebook pages. He’s now the best-selling poet in the United States. “Raise your words, not voice” Rumi teaches us. “It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
Franzoni and Brown told the Guardian that they want Rumi, a Persian Sufi Muslim born in what’s now Afghanistan, to be portrayed in the film by this man:
That’s Oscar-winning American actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who—while a phenomenal actor—is pretty white. His heritage is a mix of German, Italian, and Russian.
We don’t know exactly what Rumi looked like, but it may have been something like this. It’s fairly safe to assume that he was not a white man, and at the very least, he was not as white as Leonardo DiCaprio.
According to the Guardian, Franzoni and Brown hope the film will challenge Muslim stereotypes in western cinema. ”He’s like a Shakespeare,” Franzoni told the Guardian. “He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”
A movie about Rumi is a great idea, and Franzoni and Brown’s hearts appear to be in the right place. But casting Leonardo DiCaprio may not be the best way to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Muslims. DiCaprio’s publicists did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The internet promptly responded to the news with the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite:
There’s no guarantee this film ever gets made. And if it does, DiCaprio may well refuse the role, especially if he considers how poorly other whitewashed roles have been received in recent years.
In last year’s Gods of Egypt, Egyptian characters were played mostly by white people (though the director and studio both apologized before the film was released). In Ridley Scott’s 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christian Bale played biblical hero Moses, while Joel Edgerton played Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Scott’s explanation for using famous white actors was that it was the only way to finance the film.
Both films tanked spectacularly at the box office and were poorly received by critics. That’s what Hollywood still doesn’t understand—whitewashing usually doesn’t even work.