Throughout the history of Hollywood, there has been a serious problem in film, one that it just can’t seem to overcome. That problem is whitewashing. Whitewashing is the unfortunate, and often times offensive, practice of taking a character who was originally a person of color and casting a Caucasian actor as them in a movie.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before, time and time again. From older movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Exodus: Gods and Kings, to newer films like Gods of Egypt and Ghost in the Shell. All of these movies are example of whitewashing.
Whitewashing is mainly done when a film wants to draw in a larger crowd, and so they cast a high-profile actor—most of whom are Caucasian. It happened in Ghost in the Shell with the casting of Scarlet Johansson, and it looks like it may be happening again soon. This time with a biopic about Rumi.
David Franzoni, the man who penned the script for the infamous film Gladiator, is working on a new movie; a biopic based on the life of 13th-Century poet Rumi. The film is still in its early phases, but Franzoni has already started to discuss his motives for the film.
Franzoni explained that he would like to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi, as well as Robert Downey Jr. as another character, Shams of Tabriz. Rumi, who Franzoni describes as “like a Shakespeare”, is the focus of this biopic taht Franzoni hopes will “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema”.
Needless to say, people are not happy with Franzoni’s potential casting decision. Casting Leonadro DiCaprio as Rumi is yet another example of whitewashing, and makes it pretty hard to believe that the film will challenge any Muslim stereotypes. But to really understand why people feel so strongly about Rumi’s casting, let’s look at the history of the actual historical figure himself.
Who Is Rumi?
Born in the early-thirteenth century, in the year 1207, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī was a Persian poet and scholar. His name may not sound familiar right away but Rumi’s name is very infamous.
His works have become recognized in more than just Persian culture, with his name known in Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, and many other countries in South Asia. Born in the Khwarazmian Empire, Rumi became known for his poetry as an adult with Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī.
This six-volume poem is considered by many to be Rumi’s greatest achievement, and has been translated in several languages in many countries. Some poets even refer to it as the “Persian-language Quran.
Rumi died in 1237, but his legacy has lived on for centuries. Shortly after his death, a group of followers (including his youngest son) created the Mevlevi Order. The order, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, consisted of several poets and mystics, known as Sufi, who followed Rumi.
There have been several events celebrating the anniversary of Rumi’s death, as well as many translations of his poems in other famous works. His name may not be too familiar, but hundreds of his poems have been used in culture, even today. So chances are you’ve read a few of them, even if you didn’t know they were his.
Rumi’s historical presence makes him the perfect subject for a Hollywood biopic, so I don’t blame David Franzoni for wanting to make the film. But it just seems like a very odd and inaccurate choice to cast Leonardo DiCaprio, and most people seem to agree.
What Do People Really Think About Leo As Rumi?
Whenever something controversial happens, Twitter is usually there to make it trending. With the news of Leonardo DiCaprio potentially starring in the Rumi biopic, folks on twitter have created the term #RumiWasntWhite to express how they feel about it.
It’s also important to note that this news comes around the time Ramadan (a traditional Muslim holiday) has begun. Here are a few example of what the internet basically thinks about the possibility of Leo playing Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:
The “Gladiator” writer wants to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi but .
— AJ+ (@ajplus)
remember when idris elba wasn’t “english enough” to play james bond, but it’s chill if leo dicaprio plays rumi
— a a m i n a (@aaminasdfghjkl)
White people ruin Ramadan 2016 by announcing their ‘Rumi’ movie.
— Aamer Rahman (@aamer_rahman)
So they want a white man to play Rumi, a SUFI PERSIAN poet, but when they need a terrorist they find Muslim actors so easily
— Aayesha (@AayeshaJ)
Love Rumi and , but …please don’t whitewash this film. It is 2016.
— Leslye Colvin (@LeslyeColvin)
Hollywood is only comfortable portraying Iran as a place of monsters & terrorists.
— nora rahimian (@norarahimian)
So Is All This Hate Warranted?
I think so. Rumi was a very famous historical figure who means so much to a lot of people. Whitewashing is a very real and serious problem that has existed in Hollywood for many years, so taking such a famous figure and casting a Caucasian actor as him can be seen as pretty offensive.
I understand that Leonardo DiCaprio is a pretty A-list star, just coming off of a much-deserved 2016 Oscars win for The Revenant, but that shouldn’t be the first thing people look at.
David Franzoni and Hollywood should be looking at giving more POC actors a chance to shine, especially in big movies like this and others such as Ghost in the Shell. Casting for the Rumi biopic hasn’t even started, so there’s still plenty of time for Franzoni to find someone else for the role. I’m sincerely hoping he does, and gives some Muslim actor out there the chance to star in the film.
Thanks For Reading!
What do you think of the controversial Rumi biopic casting?