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Disney's Cast for 'Aladdin' Remake Sparks Debate on Cultural Authenticity

An Aladdin and Jasmine figurine, based on the 1992 Disney film, on display at Walt Disney World in Florida. (Joe Penniston / CC 2.0)

Remakes seem to be all the rage in Hollywood these days, so it’s not surprising that Disney’s 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” is being remade into a live-action movie. After months of an apparently difficult casting process, Disney finally announced its lead actors last Saturday.

The choice of actors has come under fire, as members of the Arab community point out that one of the leads is not Arabic. (The 1992 film is loosely based on a folktale from “Arabian Nights.”) Casting Massoud, a Canadian-Egyptian actor, as Aladdin “seemed to appease those seeking racial concordance with the actor and character,” Khaled Beydoun of Al Jazeera notes. But the decision to cast Scott as Jasmine is drawing criticism. Scott “was raised in London and has Indian and British roots rather than Arab, as her mother, who is from Uganda, is of Gujarati-Indian descent,” according to Daniel Gil of Arab America.

Gil continues:

Casting Arab actors to play the roles of the main characters was very clearly a significant choice for fans of the movie, and a generation of moviegoers who want cultural authenticity in their movies when so many have been whitewashed. We’re looking at you Prince of Persia: Sands of Time…

This is especially true of Arab actors who seem to have been grouped together with Indian actors who could’ve played Aladdin and Jasmine in a lumping of “brownish looking people.” They might as well just have dove into South and Latin America looking for people to play the main characters.

The cultural grouping together of starkly different societies is the crux of the issue of the casting director’s decision to include India in the movie’s original casting call. The issue also highlights the lack of high-profile Arab and Arab-American actors to choose from. …

Disney had a chance to totally make up for the sins of the original film, because let’s not forget how blatantly obvious the whitewashing was in the 1992 animated classic which cast Scott Weinger as Aladdin and Linda Larkin as Princess Jasmine. But, they almost completely blew it. Although the cast is by no means poor and their response to public pressure placed on Guy Ritchie and the casting crew genuinely admirable, it still wasn’t enough of a change in the way Arab actors have been portrayed in Hollywood over the past decades.

Numerous Twitter users seem to agree with Gil, voicing their criticism online:

[Editor’s note: “POC” is shorthand for “people of color.”]

Several critics mention the implicit racism of the original film. Justin Charity of The Ringer says the 1992 version “is set in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, an aesthetic mash-up of Agra and Baghdad.” He continues:

Typically, the term “whitewashing” applies to artwork that people of color created, or a style that they popularized, before white people developed plans to gentrify the source material. Aladdin is a strange case since the 1992 movie is itself a white dream about North Africa and Central Asia in antiquity; whitewashing is the movie’s original sin, and its casting isn’t the half of it. Aladdin is only loosely based on an ancient tale that traces back to Syria (and some versions of the story refer to him as Chinese), but the movie is, effectively, an original work that was written, scored, produced, and directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice—a team of white men. Clements, Musker, Elliott, and Rossio are also the only people with screenwriting credits; one woman, Amy Pell, has a coproducer credit. Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah, and despite its human characters all having Arab and Persian names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is white. Cartoon ethnicities aside, no actual Arabs were involved in the making of this film.

It would be hard for the new Aladdin to be any whiter than the original film already is. But the hasty rally to defend the film from the prospect of a white cast does underscore a general frustration with American media: Popular culture offers so few desirable vessels for Middle Eastern representation that the one, contested property in this regard is a cartoon movie starring Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried (among others). Aladdin is a film now so overloaded with purpose in its casting that some critics hold that Naomi Scott, who claims Indian heritage but no Middle Eastern ancestry, has no place in a story that features a palace that’s very clearly modeled after the Taj Mahal. Aladdin is a classic children’s film that at least gestures at Middle Eastern heritage and complexions in romantic terms, sans the overwhelmingly explicit barbarism or terrorism that dominates Western portrayals. It is, in other words, as good as it gets for Arabs (and Middle Easterners … and South Asians?) in massively popular American media. Aladdin isn’t credible mythology. On no level whatsoever is it true. But it is, for lack of better examples in popular culture, a beloved and thus hotly contested bit of catch-all Arab, Middle Eastern, and even South Asian representation in American pop culture.

“In recent years, [Disney] has gradually improved upon its attempts to demonstrate respect for foreign cultures,” Charity concludes. “Can Disney take a constitutionally whitewashed property and, ultimately, do right by the culture(s) it’s profiting from?”

—Posted by Emma Niles

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