The cultural left has a problem. It was on display during the 2016 election and it repeatedly plays out in Hollywood as well. Identity politics continue to distract and drag down the Democratic Party in one arena to the next, as pointed out by Mark Lilla in the New York Times and in even in Salon by Anis Shivani. If the rise of the Alt-Right has taught us anything, it is that the allure of identity politics is strong and dangerous, but still the Left persists.
In the pop culture arena, liberals have consistently pushed the idea that film and TV lacks diversity––which it does. Audiences must also be open to expanded representation on screen and embrace revisions to legacy characters whether it be their race, sexuality, or gender. Remember the flap over recasting James Bond as black? The message at the core of why audiences should be open to these changes has always been: this shouldn't matter. What difference does it make if a character is white, black, gay, straight or something in between? That depends.
So what's on the menu this week in terms of "problematic" events in politics and pop culture? Disney announced the addition of a new actor, Billy Magnussen, to its live action adaptation of the 1992 animated classic "Aladdin." The young actor, known for roles in "Into The Woods," "Bridge of Spies," and "The Big Short," is white -- and it is causing a stir online.
The live action Aladdin movie was under pressure from its inception to challenge a long-running and legitimate failing in Hollywood: whitewashing. You might recall Jake Gyllenhaal starring as the Prince of Persia, or Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel's "Doctor Strange," a character who is originally from Tibet.
In the new "Aladdin," Disney approached this issue delicately and ended up casting Egyptian-born actor Mena Massoud for the lead role. Next they brought on Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. The iconic role of the Genie, once voiced by the late-great Robin Williams, will be played by Will Smith. Thank goodness the Genie's ethnic origins as a blue-humanoid cloud of magic dust remains a mystery, or Will Smith might have had to go on Facebook Live and tearfully apologize for accepting the role.
Billy Magnussen, a white actor from Queens, will be playing a new character known as Prince Anders. Nothing else is known about the character or his function in the story. Despite having done all the right things in casting for this movie and avoiding the stench of whitewashing, this move has somehow struck a nerve.
The addition of a white character, to what was shaping up to be a film led exclusively by brown actors in a Middle Eastern setting, rings like shoehorning a white man into the story in order to market the film and sell tickets. The argument for casting white actors in stories that don't really call for it, such as Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" or Matt Damon in "The Great Wall," goes something like this: American audiences won't pay money to see stories set abroad led by actors whose name people do not recognize.
In some cases this holds up, in others it doesn't. "The Last Samurai" was by all measures a financial and critical success, even claiming four Oscar nominations. "The Great Wall" tanked. "Gods of Egypt," an embarrassingly bad action flick led by recognizable white actors, crashed and burned. There are variety of a factors at play in the success of any movie. In general, audiences reward authenticity.
Over the summer, "Star Wars" actor John Boyega lobbed rhetorical bombs at "Game of Thrones" and "Lord of the Rings" for their lack of diversity. "I ain't paying money to always see one type of person on-screen. Because you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you're a racist, you have to live with that," said Boyega.
Naturally, this comment was met with much fanfare. Don't forget, this is coming from a faction that complains about Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" -- a movie about the rescue of 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers in 1940 from German forces -- lacking people of color. John Boyega went on to say, "You either enjoy it or you don't. I'm not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on-screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn't make sense."
Does whitewashing mean that white actors helm characters meant for people of color, or does it mean that white actors are present at all? Even among critics, this is increasingly unclear. What is also unclear is what a progressive approach to film entails.
If you went with the Boyega view, an Aladdin film that exclusively features "one type" of people with similar backgrounds and culture, the movie is not worth money to see.
In the animated "Aladdin," we know that Jasmine had rejected multiple suitors arranged by her father leading up to the arrival of Aladdin and his magic carpet. It is reasonable to assume we might see some of those suitors in a whimsical montage sequence of rejections. This mysterious Prince Anders played by Magnussen could simply be a foreign dignitary vying for her hand as a part of an effort to forge a geopolitical alliance with the Agrabah. You know, like monarchs and nobles did in ancient times on the regular.
Spoiler alert: This Prince Anders is going to lose the race for Jasmine's affections. He will also probably do so quite ungracefully. What's the problem with an antagonistic European foreigner entering this classic Arabian love story as a dejected, unappealing supporting character? Race.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.
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