When is it ever a good idea to cast a white actor in a role like this one?
The first images from the new Peter Pan reboot were published yesterday and, oh boy, does Hugh Jackman look badass in his Blackbeard costume. Amongst photos of pirates and flying ships, the poster of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily almost slipped under the radar.
Rooney Mara was, as they say, a “controversial” casting choice. Pan takes a lot of liberties with with the classic Peter Pan story, but casting a white woman as Tiger Lily is a more meaningful decision than rewriting Captain Hook as an “Indiana Jones-like figure.”
Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings has spent the past few months being publicly criticized for selecting an all-white cast to play African and Middle Eastern characters, and Pan should expect a similar backlash. Basically, there is no good explanation for rewriting a Native American character so she looks like this:
On the one hand, it doesn’t look like they’re trying to give Rooney Mara a supposedly Native American appearance, as The Lone Ranger infamously did with Johnny Depp. This isn’t an attempt at redface, but that indicates they’ve simply deleted the character’s racial background. The new trailer includes a mention of her “tribe,” which seems to be made up of people wearing brightly-colored fantasy costumes.
When Mara was first confirmed to play Tiger Lily, the Wrap claimed that director Joe Wright was trying to make the film “very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.” The end result is a movie where the central characters—Peter, Captain Hook, Blackbeard, and Tiger Lily—are all white. The “multi-racial” part presumably refers to the fact that one or two supporting characters like Hook’s sidekick Smee are being played by actors of color.
Admittedly, Peter Pan is not known for its sensitive portrayal of Native American culture. The story has been adapted multiple times since the debut of J.M. Barrie’s play in 1904, but few versions have dealt well with Tiger Lily. Disney’s iconic animated movie even includes the song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” Still, this doesn’t mean Peter Pan‘s potentially racist subtext can be removed by rewriting Tiger Lily as a white character.
Pan was an ideal opportunity to write a respectful version of Tiger Lily, one that moved beyond the stereotypes of earlier adaptations. Instead, the filmmakers have taken the easy way out by erasing Tiger Lily’s Native American background—a decision that is implicitly racist in itself.
Photo via Warner Bros./jposters