JJ Abrams, the director of Star Trek (2009) and the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness is known for being secretive about his upcoming projects. He’s taken it to an extreme with Into Darkness, however: he won’t even confirm the identity of the villain.
Rumors have been flying all over the place for months, of course. The most common is that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the iconic Original Trek character Khan.I really, really hope it’s not true.
Khan, full name Khan Noonien Singh, was originally played by Ricardo Montalbán. He first appeared in the Original Trek episode Space Seed; in which he’s identified as being “[f]rom the northern India area…. Probably a Sikh.” (Here’s the clip; skip to 9:10 for the line).Benedict Cumberbatch is a very talented actor. He is also a very white actor.
Normally, pointing this out invites comments like “Ricardo Montalbán wasn’t Indian either!” That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.
Which is exactly what they’ve done, yet again, if Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan.
The short of it is that there are disproportionately few roles for actors of color as it stands, and those roles that do exist often take a back seat to the many roles already available to white men (especially talented, famous white men like Cumberbatch). Whitewashing characters of color is a form of systematic racism.
Khan is an interesting, complex, and iconic villain, and it’s not 1967 anymore. If the film features a character of Indian descent, there is absolutely no excuse for not hiring an actor of Indian descent to play the part.
Edit to Add–a few links, courtesy Racebending’s fantastically awesome tumblr:
The Whitewashing Khan tumblr. “It’s wrong and you know it.” That about sums it up, yeah.
Charlie Jane Anders tackled this on io9 almost a year ago, with insightful commentary on what a white Khan means in terms of Khan’s background with eugenics.
Changelog–this post has been updated (see comments for details):
He was Hispanic. Wikipedia pegs him as the son of Castillian Spaniards. I don’t know whether he self-identified as a person of color. If he did, But while there is certainly plenty to say about Hollywood’s habit of casting people of color to play characters from completely different backgrounds as if all brown people look the same (Montalbán played more than one Asian character during his career) ,. But that is a separate issue entirely from Hollywood’s ugly history of casting white people to play characters of color.”
++”That’s true. Hollywood has a long and ugly history of using raceface to portray characters of color. It also has an ugly history of whitewashing characters of color–casting white actors to portray the characters as white.”