Why Is a White Actor Playing 'Prince of Persia' Title Role?

Critics debate the political and racial implications of casting Jake Gyllenhaal

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This weekend sees the release of the movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Mike Newell's adaptation of the 2003 video game of the same name. Jake Gyllenhaal will star as Prince Dastan, a casting choice that has upset some people: Gyllenhaal is white, while some feel the role calls for an actor of Middle Eastern descent. Gyllenhaal's casting, as well as that of white actress Gemma Arterton as the princess Tamina, have raised questions about how much racial authenticity we should expect from our movies.

  • 'Insulting' The blogger Jehanzeb Dar, who writes at Muslim Reverie, told the Associated Press that Gyllenhaal's casting is "not only insulting to Persians, it's also insulting to white people. It's saying white people can't enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white." (Dar later contacted the Wire to clarify that he meant the film is insulting to "people of color," not specifically Persians.) In a related post on Muslim Reverie, Dar disgustedly juxtaposes Prince of Persia with the 2007 film 300, where "the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the 'good guys,' they are played by lovely White people."
  • Hang On a Second, protests Nicholas Deleon at CrunchGear. "Dar's way over-thinking this. I'm sure the film's producers were merely thinking, 'We need to find a male actor who's reasonably well-known to the American movie-goer. Quick, intern, go through this list of actors and see who's available for two months sometime in the next six months. We'll go with whoever the hell answers our phone calls.' I guess Jake Gyllenhaal, the actor who plays Prince, wasn't busy. That's all that happened, people."
  • These Categories Become Pretty Fluid, points out Chris Dierkes at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Dierkes wonders: what does "Persian" refer to, anyway? The Indo-European language? The political body, whose population underwent plenty of "inter-mixing of ethnicities across the Central Asian plateau"? Does it refer to present-day Iran, whose people are far from monochrome? Should Gyllenhaal's own Jewish ancestry enter into this equation at all? "I realize given the history of blackface, North African Moses played by Charlton Heston and so on, this is a sensitive topic," writes Dierkes. "But I'm not quite sure I get this one."
  • Still, It Makes for Some Cognitive Dissonance, says Jonathan Curiel at True/Slant: "There's something disjointed about an entertainment franchise built around 'Persia' - i.e., the empire that spawned Iran - whose main character is a non-Persian." Curiel rattles off a list of actors "of Iranian/Persian descent" who could have just as easily played Gyllenhaal's part, before confessing that he missed an obvious red flag about Prince of Persia: "It's a Disney film. And Disney has a history of whitening its Middle East movies - most notably its animated Aladdin franchise, which featured Robin Williams, and an Aladdin character who spoke like he was from Madison, Wisconsin, not Mecca or Baghdad."
  • Did Political Concerns Affect Casting? wonders Adriel Luis at Change.org. Luis notes that Persia is "called Iran now, and the country is one of our biggest enemies." He marvels at "the Walt Disney Company's ability to make a massively-budgeted film about Middle Eastern people that takes place in the Middle East and market it to an American population that sometimes fears and disdains Middle Eastern people. The magic formula, of course? Don't use Middle Eastern people!"
  • Not the Only Example of Whitewashing It's common in genre fiction for casts to skew white, whether from the outset or as a result of in-story attrition. The Associated Press draws parallels between Prince of Persia and M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, due out this summer; Sady Doyle wonders on Slate this week what happened to all the women and minorities of Lost; years back, Ursula K. LeGuin saw the diverse characters of her novels bleached for a television miniseries; and last year xkcd's Randall Munroe noted an uncomfortable truth about the cult TV show Firefly. (It happens in works more grounded in realism, too: Feministing's Miriam Pérez was dismayed last week to see Jennifer Lopez give birth to red-haired twins in The Back-Up Plan.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.