Earlier this month we learned that David Franzoni, the Oscar-nominated writer and Oscar-winning producer of Gladiator, is working on a new screenplay based on the life of Persian poet and scholar Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.
We also learned, in an interview with The Guardian, that the writer would like Rumi to be played in this film by a white man.
Franzoni shared that he and his producer, Stephen Joel Brown, hoped the new film would feature Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr. in the roles of Rumi (born in present-day Afghanistan) and his advisor, Shams of Tabriz. Brown, whose producing credits include Se7en and The Fugitive, also joins Franzoni in hoping that the film will challenge stereotypes about Muslims.
He added, “this is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” apparently to emphasize how impressed we should be with their concept thus far.
Yet, people of color across the Internet have been less than impressed with the “level” of casting, pointing out that the whitewashing that these men imagine for their film is actually pretty much par for the course in Hollywood — not to mention deeply offensive.
And while it’s more than likely that DiCaprio and Downey Jr. don’t end up in the lead roles (the creators themselves admit it’s too early to be talking about casting, and it’s unclear that either actor has even been approached), what’s particularly significant about this story is the fact that these two white men were confident enough to brag about their ideas publicly. Meaning, not only did they not seem to think of the implications of casting a white person to play a person of color — or how it links up with the long history of racism and exclusion in Hollywood — but they seem oblivious to the very public conversations around race and representation happening at this very moment, not just on Twitter but in the pages of The New York Times and even on stage at last year’s Academy Awards. Or, perhaps they were aware of those conversations and just didn’t care very much.
In that sense, this serves as a reminder of how much we’re up against in trying to diversify Hollywood and to make the industry a more inclusive place for people who are not white men. People like Franzoni and Brown – with their illustrious resumes and clear access to capital — still represent the majority of those who have the power and influence to make blockbusters in Tinseltown. So even if we’re able to convince these men that the world is unfair in some way — that stereotypes about Muslims and people from the Middle East exist, for instance — they often assume that they are the ones best suited to fix that problem (see also Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 24, Homeland, etc.). And they end-up not only choosing to make films which erase people of color from their own stories, but which presuppose that the only audience that matters for such films is a white one.
You see this bias not just in how openly they speak to The Guardian about their casting dreams (clearly forgetting that people of color, including those who are from countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey, will also be reading their interview), but in how they describe the kind of film they are planning to make.
“Rumi is hugely popular in the United States. I think it gives him a face and a story,” Franzoni says, as if neither of those things previously existed for one of the most popular poets in the world. He compares the writer to Shakespeare and uses Hollywood’s white-centering Lawrence of Arabia as an example of where he’s drawing inspiration — clearly signaling who he’s looking to impress. He goes on to again cite the popularity of Rumi outside the Middle East as a reason for wanting to make this film, “If we position ourselves carefully, [we can say] now we’re going to tell you where something you love came from.”
Yet these men are not interested in telling us about where Rumi truly came from. They want to present a digestible version of his life for white audiences, one where they give him a new “face” — that preferably looks like the faces they tend to love most already. Presumably because, without a face like DiCaprio’s, white people wouldn’t be able to continue loving Rumi.
There’s of course no way this film will challenge stereotypes about Muslims from the Middle East if it doesn’t star any Muslims from the Middle East. Moreover, and as many have already pointed out, it’s actually on track to do some actual harm.
As long as Hollywood keeps imagining most heroes as white — as long as we continue to erase the contributions and stories of people of color worldwide, and attribute their work to white people — we perpetuate the very systems of power which create stereotypes, hatred, and the exclusion of anyone who might look like Rumi in the first place.
Franzoni and Brown’s film might seem like a noble-minded idea with faulty execution at this point, but its problems extend beyond that. This is not only about the offensive product which might end up on screen one day, but about the very process through which the film is being produced. Meaning, these men aren’t just potentially exploiting a story about a famous person of color for their own professional gain, they are perpetuating systems of film production which allow these sorts of things to keep happening.
Whitewashing the Middle East isn’t new for Hollywood, nor would the proposed film be an outlier in Brown’s producing career. According to Wikipedia, he is the CEO of a production company in Turkey — Y Production — which seems to specialize in “colorblind” white-led films. That company is currently producing its first film, The Ottoman Lieutenant, which stars Dutch star Michiel Huisman (from Game of Thrones) as a guy named Ismail (IMDB describes the film as “a love story between an idealistic American nurse and a Turkish officer in World War I”) and which is also written and directed by white men. Their second feature will be this film about Rumi, which may or may not star Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s a company apparently designed to continue in the long tradition of casually racist “Hollywood epics” about the Middle East, like Lawrence of Arabia or Prince of Persia (or even Aladdin).
Which is to say, there is a larger story to tell here. One that extends beyond a seemingly innocent comment made by two Hollywood creatives, or even this one movie. The thoughts that Franzoni and Brown shared with The Guardian strike a nerve precisely because we know that they are not isolated thoughts, and that they are not the only ones in town who share them. We know that entire industries are built upon the exploitation of brown and Black stories, their bodies, their lives.
We also know that there are not an endless supply of Rumi films which will make their way into our local theaters some day. And we know why Franzoni’s script was picked, while many others were rejected.
You may recall that Ridley Scott once defended the whitewashing of Moses in his film Exodus by saying, “I can’t mount a film of this budget… and say that my lead actor is Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” That argument is being repeated again today, in response to this new film. Except that Rumi’s full name was actually Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. And he was from “such-and-such” place, and wrote his world famous poetry with that “so-and-so” name, and all while not looking like Leonardo DiCaprio very much at all.
In Hollywood today, whether the argument is disguised as being about money or purportedly busting stereotypes, the truth is that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote of Nina Simone, a young Rumi — hundreds of years after he wrote his world famous poetry — still wouldn’t likely be considered for a role in his own Hollywood film. Or even have a spot on the writing team.
The conversation about representation is never just about representation. It’s about what happens as a result of dismissal and erasure. How certain careers (and communities) are given a boost, while others are left behind. How certain stories are more likely to find funding in the future, certain lives more likely to be normalized, while certain others remain “faceless,” and at the margins. How our collective thinking about who matters and who does not — who deserves to be seen, and who does not — is further limited and twisted by Hollywood.