Hollywood loves to play fast and loose with casting choices, even when working with a remake of a film or an adaptation of a book. They change ages, hair color, and even gender.
Although this is commonplace, there is one character feature that, when “changed” from the source material, seems to cause a lot of backlash — and that’s race. Even when a character’s race isn’t specified, people get angry when a nonwhite actor is cast as a character they’ve pictured as white. And since race seems to get a disproportionate response, it’s pretty clear that this criticism is not coming from an accuracy standpoint but a racist one.
Here are 13 times a nonwhite actor was cast in a “white” role and racist trolls caused an uproar — and what the actors themselves had to say about it.
Halle Bailey as Ariel in 2022’s The Little Mermaid.
In the titular role, the filmmakers cast R&B singer (and one-half of duo Chloe x Halle) Halle Bailey as Ariel. This prompted backlash from racist fans, who claimed Ariel was meant to be white — as she was in the animated film. The hashtag “#NotMyAriel” even began trending, with fans of the animated film taking issue with Bailey’s appearance in the recently released teaser.
Bailey spoke of the criticism in an interview with Variety, saying that it stung but her family acted as her support system during the backlash. Her grandparents also spoke to her about their memories of racism in their lives. “It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to hear their words of encouragement, telling me, ‘You don’t understand what this is doing for us, for our community, for all the little Black and brown girls who are going to see themselves in you,’” Bailey said.
Bailey also thought about what seeing a Black girl as Ariel would’ve meant for her growing up: “What that would have done for me, how that would have changed my confidence, my belief in myself, everything. Things that seem so small to everyone else, it’s so big to us.”
Rachel Zegler as Snow White in 2024’s Snow White.
There was similar backlash over the casting of Rachel Zegler as Snow White in the upcoming live-action film. Critics thought Zegler, a Colombian actor, was not right for the role. Despite her proven singing and acting abilities, people felt that a character with “skin as white as snow” should be played by a white actor.
In response to the backlash, Zegler tweeted, “Yes, I am Snow White. No, I am not bleaching my skin for the role,” before deleting it.
She later said in an interview with Andrew Garfield for Variety, “Never in a million years did I imagine that this would be a possibility for me. You don’t normally see Snow Whites that are of Latin descent. Even though Snow White is really a big deal in Spanish-speaking countries.”
Zegler continued, “When it was announced, it was a huge thing that was trending on Twitter for days because all of the people were angry.” Garfield replied, “Ah, those people. The people that we need to educate. The people that we need to love into awareness,” which Zegler agreed with.
Zendaya as MJ in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (and subsequent Spider-Man films).
The character was white in the comics and had previously been played by Kirsten Dunst. So when Zendaya, a biracial woman, was cast as MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming, some fans were angry. Zendaya responded to this criticism, saying, “People are going to react over anything. But nothing [about who she is playing] is fact. It’s like, you guys are just making shit up at this point and then reacting to it.”
She continued, “Of course there’s going to be outrage over that because for some reason, people just aren’t ready. I’m like, ‘I don’t know what America you live in, but from what I see when I walk outside my streets of New York right now, I see lots of diversity and I see the real world and it’s beautiful, and that’s what should be reflected, and that’s what is reflected, so you’re just going to have to get over it.’”
Spider-Man creator Stan Lee also supported the casting. Lee said, “If she is as good an actress as I hear she is, I think it’ll be absolutely wonderful,” and pointed out that “in the Daredevil movie, the Kingpin — who had been white in the comics — he was a Black man playing the role, and he played it beautifully.”
Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/the Human Torch in 2015’s Fantastic Four.
The character was white in the comics and had previously been played by Chris Evans — so when Michael B. Jordan, a Black man, was cast in the role, some people were angry.
Director Josh Trank even got death threats over the casting choice. “I was getting threats on IMDb message boards saying they were going to shoot me,” he told Polygon. “I was so f—— paranoid during that shoot.”
Jordan himself responded to the criticism, saying, “I know I can’t ask the audience to forget 50 years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961. Plus, if Stan Lee writes an email to my director saying, ‘You’re good. I’m okay with this,’ who am I to go against that?”
He continued, “Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that ‘it has to be true to the comic book.’ Or maybe we have to reach past them.”
Idris Elba as Heimdall in 2011’s Thor (and its sequels).
When Idris Elba, a Black actor, was cast as a Norse god, some fans were upset and felt it was unrealistic. One white supremacist group even urged others to boycott the film.
Elba responded to the criticism, saying, “We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.”
Lashana Lynch as Nomi (the next 007) in No Time to Die.
Lashana Lynch suffered plenty of backlash, especially because not only is she Black, but she’s also a woman — and people picture 007 as a white man after seeing so many white men as 007, even though those 007s were James Bond, while she is a new character.
Lynch replied to the backlash, saying, “White patriarchy will always have something to say when it comes to things like that. But the magnitude of it was ridiculous.” She said that while her casting was “revolutionary” and big for her community, she isn’t the first Black character in the Bond franchise, and the world at large needs to stop acting “like it’s this New Age thing, like Black people have just arrived on the planet.”
Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary (2012–19).
Lucy Liu’s casting prompted backlash, since people were used to seeing Sherlock’s companion as the white male John Watson — like in the recent Sherlock Holmes film series (2009–11) and the series Sherlock (2010–17), which aired at the same time.
Liu responded to this backlash, saying, “For me it’s about pushing forward, playing a role that has been historically a male figure and also something that is obviously lore because it is very English-based. I think for someone who is an Asian American actress playing Watson, that’s something I always like to do — push the envelope.””
“If you look at the percentage of ethnicities and the percentage of women on television now, it’s such a different time,” she pointed out. “That’s how you keep things current. You update and you change them accordingly.”
Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth in 2023’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
The upcoming Percy Jackson series has already remedied the biggest issue in the films, which was that the characters were aged up, and then the actors were even older than their characters. In the series, the actors are 12 (playing 12), 13 (playing 12), and 16 (playing 32, which is equivalent to 16 for his character’s species).
But there are still complaints over the casting — mostly to do with Leah. In the novel, Annabeth is described as tan with long, curly blonde hair. The backlash got so bad that series creator Rick Riordan had to issue a statement condemning the comments. “Whatever else you take from this post, we should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong,” he wrote in a blog post.
“As strong as Leah is, as much as we have discussed the potential for this kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now.”
He continued, “I have been clear, as the author, that I was looking for the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary for me. We did that. We took a year to do this process thoroughly and find the best of the best. This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.”
Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016–18).
Dumezweni spoke of the bullying: “It’s ignorance,” she said. “It drives me crazy. It’s a limitation. […] My name is being tagged into stuff that’s not nice.” Dumezweni was clearly the right choice for the part. She won a Laurence Olivier Award and was nominated for a Tony for the role when it transferred to Broadway.
Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie in 2014’s Annie.
A lot of hate was directed at then–11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis — exclusively because she is Black and was playing a traditionally white role. There were a large number of tweets denouncing her casting, as well as (to a lesser degree) Jamie Foxx’s.
All Black characters in The Rings of Power (2022–), but most prominently Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir, Sophia Nomvete as Disa, and Lenny Henry as in Sadoc Burrows.
When The Rings of Power was released, some people were angry that there were nonwhite characters in the series, claiming the series is a misrepresentation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. While there is no indication that nonwhite people don’t exist in Middle-earth, people may have assumed so after the original trilogy of films featured only white characters.
The series released a statement, saying, “BIPOC belong in Middle-earth and they are here to stay.” The main cast members of the original trilogy also expressed their support, donning shirts that said, “You are all welcome here.”
Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon (2022–).
Some fans were angry at his casting, as the Velaryons are canonically white/pale in Fire & Blood, the story from which House of the Dragon was adapted. This led to a lot of racist hate directed toward Toussaint online. “I kind of thought, Oh, I get it. When we were criminals and pirates and slaves in the other show, you were OK with that,” Toussaint said, pointing out that there were Black characters in Game of Thrones — but they were lower class. “But as this guy is the richest [character] in the show and he’s a nobleman, now you have a problem with it,” he added.
“They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale,” he also said. But ultimately, he said, “There are people outside who find it a little hard to stomach that someone who looks like me would play this part. But that’s an issue they have to deal with and I don’t have to.”
And finally, let’s end on one that’s particularly ridiculous: Amandla Stenberg as Rue in 2012’s The Hunger Games.
The role was literally specified to be Black in the book, but people were still angry because they had been picturing a white girl.* “While it was hurtful when I was 12, it wasn’t shocking,” Stenberg said of the backlash, as she was already aware “that there was resistance to having Black girls in films, and that Black women are dehumanized and their lives are seen as less valuable than white lives.”
“The irony of the whole situation was that Rue was one of the only characters I could find in the content I loved that was literally written as Black,” she continued.
What would you say to racist trolls who claim the above actors aren’t right for their roles? What does it mean to you to have these castings? Let us know in the comments below!