I have a taste for diversity. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, considering that I am an Indian Muslim woman who was raised in America, wears the hijab, speaks Urdu, and flaunts a Persian name. Naturally, Rumi landed on my must-read list by the time I was old enough to understand the art of poetry. So, imagine my disappointment when Leonardo DiCaprio — a white man — was recommended to play the role of a man of whom my Indian grandfather boasts, whose work I studied in my Arabic poetry class, and who I, along with the rest of the world, know to be a Sufi Muslim from modern-day Afghanistan.
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. Hollywood is notorious for its history of whitewashing. However, when an industry continuously casts brown Muslim men to portray terrorists — who can be of any race or religion — yet finds it difficult to cast a brown Muslim man for an undisputedly brown Muslim role, the problem is greater than just whitewashing.
Rumi challenges the core belief of a white supremacist’s orientalist view; his work lies in the heart of Middle Eastern culture, celebrating the love of God, people, life, beauty, and peace. He represents everything that the mainstream attributes solely to European civilization and his words humanize a people that are continuously appropriated as barbaric terrorists.
“Be kind and honest, and harmful poisons will turn sweet inside you.” These are the words of Rumi, a Sufi Muslim poet from a land in which we have waged wars. White Hollywood has no problem cherrypicking parts of a foreign culture while otherwise celebrating the bombing and demonization of its brown people.
David Franzoni, the Oscar-winning writer who suggested DiCaprio for the role, justified his choice by saying, “[Rumi’s] like a Shakespeare. He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”
This, in short, is the definition of the white superiority complex in Hollywood: Mr. Franzoni is saying that those with enormous talent, worth, and significance are entitled to be represented by white actors, no matter which race the roles are historically or fictionally defined. According to him, Rumi fits the mold of what it means to be great: he must be — like Shakespeare — a white male.
So, of course, it is a white man that comes to mind by media makers when the time comes to give “a face and a story” to one of the most renowned poets who transcends time, whose Persian descent, language, and positive Middle Eastern influence is completely sidelined in the process.
Meanwhile, non-white actors will once again be cast to play the demonizing role of “[rampaging] extremists” just as they were in movies like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, adding to the manufactured Islamophobia created by the media and perpetuated by popular culture.
In a strange twist of words, Franzoni said his intention was to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in Western cinema” by casting DiCaprio. If you want to “challenge” the portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood, then cast us as the mathematicians, doctors, engineers, lawyers, poets, comedians, and artists that we really are. If you want to “challenge” the portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood, then cast a white man to play the role of a terrorist.
If you want to “challenge” the portrayal of Muslims in Hollywood, then do not use white actors to usurp our identity as a people who have made history.