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10 June 2016

Why no white actor should play Persian poet Rūmī

Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor, but this is terrible casting.

By Zayani Bhatt

Hollywood writer David Franzoni has said his new project – a biopic on Persian poet Rūmī – will challenge Muslim stereotypes in cinema. But how is he going to achieve that if the actor he chooses to play Rūmī is white?

Franzoni told the Guardian this week that his dream actor for the role would be Leonardo DiCaprio. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī was many things: a poet, a Sufi, a jurist, a theologian and an Islamic scholar but one thing he wasn’t? White. Even the suggestion that DiCaprio would be right for the role is problematic.

It’s not just whitewashing, it’s cultural appropriation too; a case of wanting to make art to celebrate an artist without respecting their heritage and the people and place they come from. In the case of a black Hermione for the new Harry Potter play, J.K. Rowling never specified her race – but also, Hermione’s race had nothing to do with her character. In this case, Rūmī’s race is intrinsic to his character and therefore essential to acknowledge. 

Don’t get me wrong – DiCaprio is a good actor. But this isn’t about his talent. Even if that is the argument, there is a huge untapped pool of non-white talent. And isn’t the look of an actor just as important as his ability to correctly portray the character? A big name doesn’t guarantee a blockbuster film.

While it’s true that Caucasian actors can play other races, have done so in the past and done so well, we are now more aware of such social dynamics and the peer mentality of different races. People of colour are disempowered as it is, and sweeping Rūmī’s race under the rug like this, as simply a minor inconvenience, sends the message that appropriation by a more socio-economically and politically powered demographic is acceptable.

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If the film challenges Muslim stereotypes in cinema it should be because of a Muslim actor, not a benevolent white one. Film-makers need to understand their impact on popular culture through films like this – we are asking for representation on a highly influential and powerful platform.

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