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When White Actors Play Black Characters


When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002 his wife, Marianne, became a fixture in international media. The first time I saw her I made a very simple observation. “His wife is black,” I said to myself. I know a black person when I see one, and I saw one in Marianne Pearl. In the new film A Mighty Heart, Pearl is portrayed by actress Angelina Jolie. Jolie is white.

Here we are in the 21st century and a white actor is portraying a black character. Not just any character, but a real life, well-known, still living human being. Anyone who sees Marianne Pearl knows she isn’t white, but the powers that be in Hollywood didn’t care and knew they could get away with this offensive charade.

Marianne Pearl was born in France to a Cuban mother and a Dutch father. Her mother was quite obviously black, photos are unambiguous on that point. Her father was European, so she can be described as multi-racial or biracial. It doesn’t really matter what term or words Pearl uses to describe herself. She is clearly a person of African ancestry, and putting dark make up and a curly wig on Angelina Jolie doesn’t change that fact or fool anyone.

The days of white actors using various makeup techniques to play non-white people should be over in the new millennium. Who can forget Marlon Brando portraying an Okinawan or John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Those days should be long gone and consigned to the dust bin of Hollywood’s shameful history.

In the old days, white actors always played light-skinned black characters who could “pass” for white. Films such as Pinky and Imitation of Life are historic examples of that phenomenon. We now have a white person portraying a not so light skinned, obviously black, living person. It seems that Hollywood is becoming less enlightened with time.

Of course, it didn’t hurt Jolie that her boyfriend Brad Pitt produced the movie. Because Pitt is a bankable star and producer, he can get whatever he wants. If he had insisted on having an actress of color portray a woman of color he could have gotten that too. It isn’t clear if he was motivated by the desire for familial bliss, “color doesn’t count, can’t we all get along, kumbayah” fantasy, bigger bucks at the box office, or all of the above.

Pearl and Jolie are just fine with the arrangement, and why not. Jolie gets a role she wanted and Pearl gets to see her story on the silver screen. Both are defensive about the casting criticisms and plead with the peasantry to remain silent.

“I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles [for people of color], but I think they’ve picked the wrong example here,” Jolie opined. Why is this example wrong? Is it because honesty and integrity would have denied her the part? If Jolie can possibly think of a reason why the rest of us should just shut up and accept modern day blackface she needs to come up with a better explanation.

Marianne Pearl also thinks that critics should bite their tongues. “This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her. Aren’t we past this?” Who is we? Hollywood endlessly promotes white people and their image. If they aren’t “past” the business of telling the world that only white people are acceptable, beautiful, and noble, then the rest of us shouldn’t be “past” demanding that our images be shown, especially if the image in question is that of a living individual who is obviously not the same race as the actor playing the part.

Pearl’s acquiescence is no reason for other black people to think that this throwback to Hollywood’s dark ages, pun intended, should be acceptable. She is not free to instruct the rest of the African ancestored world how we should react when our very presence is denied and our image is erased. The story of a pregnant journalist whose husband is kidnapped and beheaded tugs at the heart strings. Apparently the deal makers in Hollywood feared that those heart strings wouldn’t be moved if one black or multiracial person portrayed another.

Last but not least, Pitt and Jolie should not be given a pass for their white washing endeavor. They have adopted Asian and African children and given birth to one on the African continent. They may get brownie points for having a multiracial family, but that shouldn’t protect them from criticism when they tell us not to believe our lying eyes.

MARGARET KIMBERLEY is an editor and senior columnist for the Black Agenda Report. Her Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at



Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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