Disney’s turbulent casting process for the live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” has finally come to an end.
However, after a four-months-long international search for the perfect lead actors, the company now faces backlash from fans in the form of accusations of whitewashing and cultural misrepresentation. Following the reportedly difficult casting process, a representative announced the upcoming film will star Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine and Will Smith as the Genie. The selection of half-Indian, half-white actress Scott has proven to be most controversial by far, as many fans have criticized the fact that someone with white background gets to play a role in a film that Disney branded as Middle Eastern. To many others, the choice of an actress with Indian descent over a Middle Eastern one reflects Disney’s belief that the two brown cultures are interchangeable.
As a veteran Disney fan who supports cinematic cultural representation, I found myself invested in the casting process in the weeks leading up to the official announcement at Disney’s D23 Expo on July 15. While many fans broke out in discontent with the newly chosen cast, I remain largely satisfied because Disney chose talented actors who more or less align with Disney’s presentation of Aladdin’s hometown of Agrabah as a multicultural land.
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In early 2017, Disney released its casting call for performers who could sing, act and dance to play Aladdin and Jasmine, which they categorized as Middle Eastern roles.
Before evaluating Disney’s casting choices based on cultural accuracy, fans must first consider Aladdin’s own ethnic setting.
“Aladdin” draws its origins from an Arabic folktale set in an Islamic Chinese town. Disney’s version, on the other hand, takes place in the fictional city of Agrabah.
After singing the song titled “Arabian Nights,” the film’s narrator welcomes the viewer to Agrabah, a land he says is located on one side of the “River Jordan.” With the limited information revealed in the first few minutes, it is safe to assume that Agrabah is meant to reside in the Middle East.
Given the film’s Middle Eastern influences, Disney’s choice of Massoud, an Egyptian-Canadian actor, is a fitting one. The up-and-coming actor – whose previous work includes portraying Mohammed Ali in a cinematic short – will bring the cultural authenticity of his heritage to the film, and the title role might be his defining big break in Hollywood.
However, despite all evidence pointing toward Agrabah being an Arab region, the assumption that Jasmine is definitively a Middle Eastern princess may not necessarily be correct.
The Sultan’s palace bears uncanny resemblance to India’s Taj Mahal in the city of Agra. Other South Asian influences have also made their way into the film including men in turbans, a Bengal tiger named Rajah – meaning “king” in Hindi, snake charmers and firewalkers that were popular in ancient India, and the word “Agrabah” itself, which sounds similar to the real Indian city of Agra.
Even as an Indian woman who can differentiate my culture from Middle Eastern culture, I grew up with the perception that Jasmine was from India. I identified with the princess because her world shared numerous similarities with ancient Indian iconography, folklore and history. Agrabah clearly draws influences from two distinct cultures, with substantial evidence suggesting that it’s situated in the Middle East. But given that Indian culture is a clear component in the inspiration behind the fictional land, it makes sense to have an Indian actress represent that heritage in the film.
Scott comes from a half-Indian and half-British descent, and since Hollywood is still dominated by white actors, it’s true that Disney could have found a Middle Eastern or South Asian actress for the sake of representation.
That said, omitting her partly white heritage, Scott can fairly take on the role because fans cannot know for certain what ethnicity Jasmine belongs to. Confusion surrounding the true inspiration behind Agrabah gives Disney leeway in terms of casting and can save them from potentially damaging criticism that comes with misrepresenting a specific ethnicity.
As for the Genie, claims of Disney’s whitewashing can be laid to rest – Will Smith will play the wish-granting jokester.
Fans took to Twitter to express their disappointment toward Smith stepping into the shoes of Robin Williams, some saying he could never match up to the late comedy icon. While Williams’ portrayal of the 1992 Genie has been etched into the sands of time with its memorable humor and voice modulation, his unfortunate death forced Disney to turn to another of the film industry’s remaining comedy actors.
Smith’s tendency to bring a bit of his own signature style to every role made some fans concerned about possible deviance from the character Williams breathed life into. Nonetheless, I believe Smith’s rendition of a modern Genie is an exciting prospect.
When broken down, the controversial casting for “Aladdin” is not all terrible. While Scott’s role might be slightly problematic due to her white background, fans can look forward to a high caliber of performance from the three leads. From what I believe, the remake’s cast will still be able to take their viewers on a magic carpet ride after all.