“When Warner Bros. set out to make a live-action Peter Pan, it wanted to avoid the racial insensitivities of J.M. Barrie‘s play and Disney’s 1953 animated film, which infamously featured the song “What Made the Red Man Red?” So the filmmakers reimagined Tiger Lily not as Native American but as a character of no particular ethnicity to steer clear of Barrie’s portrayal of the island’s tribe, now considered rife with offensive stereotypes.
But choosing Rooney Mara — an actress of Irish, German and French-Canadian ancestry — to playPan‘s Tiger Lily prompted an outcry, with 90,000 people signing a Care2 petition in protest. Now, asPan heads for an Oct. 9 release, it enters a cultural landscape of increased racial sensitivities around film and television casting and a social media environment that amplifies those concerns. Warners, ironically, has been branded as insensitive for attempting to offer a color-blind, modern Pan.
“There’s a misconception about the ethnicity of the original character and we felt no obligation to perpetuate that misconception,” says an insider on the project. “We looked at Native American actresses. We looked at African-American actresses. We looked at African actresses. We looked at Middle Eastern actresses. White actresses. After a very exhaustive casting process, we ultimately went with the best actress for the part.”
Warners isn’t alone in fielding criticism over the casting of a racially specific role. Even before Sony released Cameron Crowe‘s Aloha, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans blasted the film for “whitewashing” Hawaiian culture, and when it was discovered that Emma Stone plays a woman who is one-quarter Hawaiian with a half-Chinese father, the criticism grew louder.
“Why couldn’t they find someone who’s part Asian, part Pacific Islander?” asks Guy Aoki, a co-founder of MANAA. “Cameron Crowe’s a guy who purports to love Hawaiian history and culture, but could you have cast at a worse level if you hated Hawaiian culture…?”