Let me say at the top: Rooney Mara is remarkable. She is a talented actress, gorgeous and mesmerizing onscreen. That doesn't mean she can't be miscast. And according to an online petition that's gaining momentum, she has been in Joe Wright's upcoming live-action Peter Pan origin story, Pan.
This isn't the case of fanboys gone rabid like that whole Batfleck debacle. It's political to its core. Essentially, the petition presented by Kristi Arnold begs Warner Bros. outright "Stop Casting White Actors to Play People of Color!" If you'd asked me last month about Wright's track record on making impeccable film adaptations of beloved books, I'd tell you he could do no wrong. Atonement, Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina are each breathtaking, tonally faithful to their inspirations, poignant and totally gorgeous. So when word hit that he'd be helming Warner Bros' Pan, by the J.M. Barrie novel, I was positively thrilled. Then he went and cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and it was hard not to cringe at another case of Hollywood whitewashing.
In her petition, Arnold requests:
"Warner Bros. just announced Rooney Mara has been chosen to play the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American, in a Peter Pan adaptation. A statement by the studio was unapologetic, and said a black actress and a French actress were first considered for the role. This casting choice is particularly shameful for a children's movie. Telling children their role models must all be white is unacceptable.
Simply put, it's a matter of representation. Hollywood films are overwhelmingly about white men (and to a lesser degree white women). So when a role comes along that is literally written for a person of color to play, but is cast as a white person anyway, it is a slap to the face to many people of color. Now, you might argue that Mara is far more famous than any Native American actress you can think of. But can you think of any? That's the vicious circle of it all. If Hollywood doesn't cast people of color, how can people of color become household names that make them hot casting properties?
On the other hand, sometimes people of color are cast in roles that may have been originally conceived as a white character. The most notably example of this is Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four. When Michael B. Jordan was cast for the role of a character who is traditionally white, it caused a shit storm of online reactions, many of which began with "I'm not a racist but…" Some said their outrage was over the character looking different, an admittedly common complaint in any live-action adaptation of a comic. Others insisted that it makes no sense that Johnny Storm and Sue Storm can still be siblings if they have different skin colors. Well, to that I'd argue that the film exists in a world where people can stretch like elastic, become living flame, turn invisible or into rock monsters. Your suspension of disbelief should be able to extend to interracial families.
But the difference here lies in that making Johnny Storm or James Bond a black guy still leaves millions of other white movie heroes for white kids to identify with onscreen. Take away a hero of color, and the void is felt. With so few movie heroes in the US being people of color, non-white children receive a very different message from Hollywood, one that too often relegates them to sidekicks, villains, or background players. Can children of color identify with a white hero? Of course they can, but it's hard to imagine that seeing mostly white people as the heroes in movies doesn't have some sort of effect on a child's sense of identity and racial awareness. Mara's casting in Pan is just the latest to bring this matter to light.
However, EW does point out that this petition misidentifies Warner Bros comments. They were not made in defense of Mara's casting or in reference to it, but rather to the project as a whole. Warner Bros has not yet responded to this controversy. Perhaps the statement is meant to refer to the reports that Lupita Nyong’o and Adèle Exarchopoulos were considered for the role of Tiger Lily. Perhaps some of the Lost Boys will be people of color. But if Warner Bros goal is to present a multi-racial world in Pan, it'd be better done if people of color weren't relegated to tertiary characters while all the leads are doled out to white actors.
At the time of posting, the petition was requesting 6,000 signatures, and had received 5,871. You can add your name here.