The live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin – which is currently shooting near London with Guy Ritchie at the helm – has caused a furore in the UK press in particular, with reports of white cast members being “tanned” to disguise their Caucasian appearance. The revelations were sparked by a report in The Sunday Times, which quoted film extra (and lead-actor stand-in) Kaushal Odedra, as having witnessed Caucasian actors in a make-up tent, “waiting to have their skin darkened.” The report suggests that the group Odedra witnessed comprised of around 20 individuals.
The idea that white actors should be hired and “tanned” by the world’s biggest movie studio, for a film that is categorically not about white people is especially disturbing, given that the year is 2018 and the movie is being shot in a location that’s within easy reach of one of the most diverse cities in the world. As soon as this new Aladdin project was announced, social media filled with commentary concerning the potential casting of the main roles – Genie, Jasmine, Aladdin, and Jafar – as well as that of the supporting and background artists. As it stands, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud, and Marwan Kenzari play the lead characters respectively, and an estimated 400 of the 500 extras hired are reportedly of Asian, Middle-Eastern, African, or Mediterranean descent.
But, that does leave 100 other extras, some of whom Disney has confirmed in a statement were “made up to blend in.”
“Great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen. Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.”
It seems that, in trying to quash a potential movie-damaging public relations nightmare before the film is even finished, Disney has made a bad situation worse by essentially suggesting that – outside of the main cast – people of colour have been hired to fill the background of scenes, but white people were needed to make up the numbers for the really skilled, technical jobs.
With this statement, the studio justifies “tanning” white cast members to “blend in,” because it was apparently not possible to find a sufficient number of available special effects rig runners, stunt performers, and animal handlers – in the United Kingdom – who were also of Asian, Middle-Eastern, African, or Mediterranean descent.
This is certainly a problem for Aladdin, but the fact that a cast member has openly highlighted the issue in high profile news media also presents the opportunity to take discussion about representation and inclusion across the filmmaking industry to a level of greater detail, and in a public forum.