By Chewang Ngokhang
CALIFORNIA, US, 14 October 2016
Certainly, there is a lot of whitewashing in the production of Hollywood films and television series, due to a dearth of good non-white actors in the film industry. Hollywood has produced all sorts of films with white actors portraying non-white people — John Wayne laughably as Genghis Khan, Jack Palance fittingly as Ogedei, Chuck Connors as a youthful Geronimo, and some classic movies of both American and British productions: Dr Zhivago has Omar Sharif as Dr Yuri Zhivago, and Sir Alec Guinness plays Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Then there is the movie La Bamba about Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens portrayed by Asian-American Lou Diamond Phillips.
In the television series “Kung Fu”, David Carradine got the role of a monk named Kwai Chang Caine from the Buddhist Shaolin Temple in China. Though he had worked hard to get the role, Bruce Lee failed to get the coveted opportunity at the time when he was an expert in martial arts and enjoyed considerable success in martial arts films. The 1972 Kung Fu series, with haunting theme music, depicts a period of the Old West ruled by desperadoes and gunslingers. With spiritual training and skills in martial arts, Caine subdues confrontational characters into submission without the use of guns. A year later Bruce Lee gained well-deserved international fame in the movie Enter The Dragon.
Hollywood vivified the early 70s, and Carl Douglas’ song “Kung Fu fighting” did much to mesmerize the western crowd in a razzle dazzle razzmatazz, to the point that young students on college campuses thought that all we Asians know kung fu. On the cusp of chopsocky film craze Carl’s famous song shrilly resonates, “Everybody was kung fu fighting, Those kids were fast as lightning.”
Overnight dojos sprung up as many youths wanted to learn judo, karate, and kung fu. And the frenzy was momentarily interrupted with the release of the ABC miniseries “Roots” in 1977, and to be quelled by another entertaining movie the same year. Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta as Tony Manero with the Bee Gees soundtrack burst into the scene like a tsunami. The buoyant baby boomers crowd stayed alive and in ebullient spirit boogied the Hustle, Bump, and Bus Stop, to the beat and songs of Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, and ABBA.
During the height of the disco fever more popular discotheques were jam-packed with long snaking lines waiting for admittance, especially on weekends. Some of the popular joints in the LA areas were My Place in Beverly Hills and Encino, Big Daddy’s in Marina Del Rey, Red Onion in Canoga Park, Tennessee Gin and Cotton, Tarzana, etc. In the process the discotheque subculture associated with promiscuity exploded. Those were the days, evoking an acute feeling of disco heyday infused with optimistic hubris, and subsequent recurring nostalgia giving The Chills.
Despite his white skin, Michael Caine, with cockney roots, didn’t think he had a chance of portraying a British officer in the epic British film Zulu in 1964, had it not been for the Hollywood screenwriter Cy Endfield who directed the film. Obviously, it wasn’t his skin colour but his working class accent and roots in eastern London. In the movies like Kundun and Dances with Wolves, there’s hardly any whitewashing, with mostly Tibetan and American-Indian casts.
In September a new western movie will be released with non-white actors like Denzel Washington and Byung-Hun Lee as two of the seven main characters. This movie happens to be remake of The Magnificent Seven filmed in 1960; my best western flick thus far. Whoa, what a cast, all big guns: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Brown, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter. Horst Buchholz as the magnificent seven, and let’s not forget Eli Wallach acting as Calvera, the marauding bandit leader. This film was so popular in Russia that it was shown for a whole year because of Yul Brynner’s Russian roots: Mongol and Buryat stock.
The Magnificent Seven portrays a time when a small village in Mexico was robbed and terrorised by a band of bandits. Seven unemployed cowboys were hired to face and defeat the bandits. In the end the bandits were killed and defeated at the cost of the lives of four or the hired guns in a classic scenario of “good prevails against evil.” And aptly the quote goes, “When I despair, I remember all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it … always.” Mahatma Gandhi. (Incidentally, in the movie “Gandhi” a white Ben Kingsley acted as Gandhi.)
In retrospect, we are fortunate living and thriving in the land of the free lot and the home of the melting pot, fleeing sweltering pots across the globe.