Coming Soon (Again): The White Guy's Nonwhite Sidekick

If the trailers in theaters now are any sorts of indicator, 2014 isn’t going to do much for Hollywood’s endless race problem. The newsflash here is that while we’ll be watching Indian and Middle Eastern characters on screen, it will be 2015 (2016? 2017? 2064?) before they’re actually, like, people, in addition to just being “diverse.”

I’m thinking of three forthcoming films in particular that seem to play dangerously into the trope of white male leads possessing “ethnic” boy sidekicks: Million Dollar Arm, about a (white) agent’s search for an Indian baseball player; Bad Words, about a (white) 40-year-old spelling bee champ with a nonwhite frenemy, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which a white male lead and his (surprise!) nonwhite sidekick battle for an enormous family fortune.

Back in 2007, the UCLA School of Law and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center reported an unsurprising fact: Latino, African American, Asian American and Native American actors were blocked from many potential jobs due to their appearance. The UCLA study suggested that 69 percent of all acting roles were reserved for specifically white actors, with around 8.5 percent of roles available to actors of any race. Depending on their specific racial background, nonwhite actors could be limited to a mere 0.5 to 8 percent of roles. Noah, as an upcoming example (the trailer for which premiered during the Super Bowl), features an almost-exclusively white cast—despite being based on the Biblical story, in which the participants would have most certainly possessed skin a few shades darker than peach.

And as for lead roles in non-Biblical films? There’s hardly a chance at all.

It’s been this way for a century. In her book, Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema, Jane Chi Hyun Park observes that

Stories about friendships between white protagonists and their nonwhite sidekicks permeate U.S. popular culture. Well-known examples include Huck Finn and Jim, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Green Hornet and Cato. In the postwar period, as the United States was trying to project a more liberal and harmonious image of national race relations, a handful of films and television shows, such as The Defiant Ones (1958), The Crimson Kimono (1959), I Spy (1965-68) and Brian’s Song (1971) featured nonwhite characters in primary roles alongside white protagonists.

The list goes on—think Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite. The most obvious example, however, is of the “black buddy,” who rides alongside the white male protagonist and will classically take the first bullet, when push comes to shove.

And while there are undeniable problems with black representation in contemporary cinema, it is harder to talk about the representational issues with South Asian or Middle Eastern characters—because there are so fewer instances. Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian characters were long peoples of exotic interest, placed on screen more for intrigue and setting than for plot and development. But exoticism doesn’t seem to be the motivation for the characters in Million Dollar Arm, Bad Words or The Grand Budapest Hotel—rather, there’s the feeling of Hollywood attempting diversity while failing to make outright changes to its extensive fair-skinned traditions. Instead of telling Million Dollar Arm from one of the Indian baseball player’s perspectives, it instead is about the struggles of the American agent. Bad Words leans heavily on stereotypes for its humor (“If you don’t point that curry-hole that way, and sit your fucking ass down on the seat, I’m going to tell the captain that your bag’s ticking”), though it’s indicated that things get warmer and fuzzier as the movie goes along. Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel fares significantly better, with actor Tony Revolori filling a stronger and more prominent supporting role. (It is Anderson’s first non-white main character.)

In “Yellow Future,” Park adds that, “Unlike… other men of color, Asiatic men rarely appear at all on the big screen as humanized characters, that is, in dramatic rather than physical (action) and comedic roles.” This also appears to be the case with the roles of the Indian men in Million Dollar Arm, whose wide-eyed entry into Western culture is the source of laughs in the trailer. Additionally, Rohan Chand, an Indian-origin American actor playing the boy in Bad Words, provides a character for Jason Bateman to bounce his jokes off of and seemingly not a whole lot more.

In Grand Budapest Hotel, the nonwhite sidekick, Zero Mustafa (whose origins aren’t available from the trailer, but his name is Arabic) seems to be a more rounded character. Zero’s love interest is white, busting up the same-race relationship predominance in mainstream cinema. (When there is a mixed-race relationship on screen, the woman is usually the “exotic” character to the white male lead.)

Refreshingly, Zero is also not a terrorist.

Misrepresentation and sidelining of nonwhite people in films like Million Dollar Arm or Bad Words does a whole lot more than just keep nonwhite actors out of lead roles. According to Negar Mottahedeh, “Other cultures, ‘much like representations of women in classical cinema’ (Chow 1998), become both the produced and the fetishized objects of a masculinist Western gaze…. This implicates the invention of cinema in the power dynamics that have sustained the colonial enterprise and imperialism itself.” Yikes.

These roles also give an illusion of progress. These trailers had me excited for the refreshing alternative to white guys on screen. With just a few characters as “progressive” as Zero Mustafa appears to be, it’s tempting to relax demand for color without having the demand fully fulfilled. If 2014 isn’t going to be the year for change, then hope 2015 will be.