Disney’s ALADDIN Search Is Still On, And That’s Okay

The complications of casting vaguely Middle Eastern.

Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (I’d end any other editorial there, but unfortunately there’s more to this one) is currently searching for its title character, and per THR’s recent report, things haven’t exactly gone swimmingly – so much so that production has been pushed back. Whitewashing is major concern these days, as it most certainly should be, and getting ahead of actual mis-casting is probably a worthwhile use of online energy if one enjoys movies. It would be here too if Disney were looking to whitewash Aladdin – we’ve heard time and time again about white actors who bring in more money and are easier to find, and so this bit of the report in particular has understandably caught people’s attention:

But finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult — especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent

Reactions to this have been varied, with folks claiming it ought to be easy since the Indian film industry is predicated on actors who can sing (it isn’t; the overwhelming majority of Indian musicals are dubbed) alongside criticisms of the casting call itself since “Middle Eastern” isn’t a monolithic race, not to mention criticisms of the current process since prominent South Asian actors like Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel were auditioned for the part. South Asia is, as I’m sure you know, not in the Middle East. There’s truth and validity to those latter two, though there’s also a lot to unpack about the boxes of ethnicity within which these processes operate, but the general negative response to the delay in the casting process strikes me as odd.

Keep in mind, the above excerpt (“But finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult”) is THR’s phrasing of the situation, yet it’s become the entire crux of the current conversation surrounding this movie. People are trying to be helpful by pointing out the fact that India has its own musically-inclined film industry and that Disney needn’t look only at British Asians if they want a South Asian face, though in addition to the discrepancy in how exactly Indian musicals operate when it comes to talent, it might be worth noting that Disney already has operations in India (their next Indian film, Jagga Jasoos, comes out this week in fact) so it’s not unreasonable to assume they’ve had their eye on Indian talent.

The THR article even mentions that Ritchie and casting director Randi Hiller have been working with casting directors in India, London, Egypt and Abu Dabhi (among other places) with around 2,000 actors and actresses having already read for the parts of Aladdin and Jasmine. That doesn’t sound like lack of effort, and if they’ve pushed shooting the actual movie back by a month (not exactly an inexpensive ask!) because they’ve neither managed to cast their male lead nor make a final selection from their actress shortlist – including the likes of Power Rangers’ Naomi Scott – as they haven’t been able to screen test the characters together, then that doesn’t exactly come off as unwillingness to find the right Middle Eastern/South Asian person.

If anything, it’s indicative of the opposite.

Now, whether or not they’re looking for the “right person” the right way, ethnically speaking, is its own can of worms. The objections in question here, one, that “Middle Eastern” isn’t a monolith, and two, that “Indian/South Asian” are not Middle Eastern, are complicated enough that they almost act in opposition to one another. Can a South Asian person pass as Middle Eastern? It depends! Some of us share common ancestry not too far back – much of North India’s populace descends from Central Asian invaders (you’d be forgiven for confusing me for Arab, which has been known to happen – it was easy for me to blend in when I lived in Saudi!) and given the amount of trade and migration that’s happened in the region over the last five thousand years, there isn’t exactly a hard line between what’s considered Indian and what’s considered Middle Eastern based purely on appearance.

Like “Indian,” “Middle Eastern” also refers to a vast collection of cultures and ethnicities, in Asia as well as North Africa. They’re more like a spectrum than a set of boxes, and they even overlap at times, but the unfortunate reality of this situation is that even progress in the realm of casting needs to function within pre-prescribed racial boxes at this point in time and at this level. It’s entirely possible that the people making these casting calls have the same image of “Middle Eastern” as your average American news media (Muslim, Arab, and a specific shade of brown), and the fact is, for a fantasy mish-mash of Middle Eastern stereotypes, you can’t exactly be specific about the character’s specific ethno-geographic origin when he hails from “Agrabah.”

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me defending Aladdin the cartoon musical. Good god, no, that’s its own article’s worth of cultural whitewashing that I’ll gladly get into on another day, along with what this new version should or shouldn’t do in order to change the animated movie’s more problematic elements. But given even the questionable context of casting “vaguely Middle Eastern,” it stands to reason the casting directors would want to cast a wide net.

Why include South Asians in that group even if a lot of us can “pass” for Middle Eastern, even though we aren’t? That’s a fair question and one worth considering. Opportunities in Western media are limited for folks who belong to those two groups, and an Indian or Pakistani actor taking the role prevents a Middle Eastern newcomer from making a mark. A lot of the interchangeability between South Asian/Middle Eastern in the minds of Westerners leads to its own set of issues (a friend on Twitter brought up attacks on Sikhs when they’re confused for Middle Eastern Muslims, which is certainly a general concern) but given both the ethnic non-specificity of the character here and the ethnic overlap between what looks South Asian and what looks Middle Eastern, this wouldn’t be an issue in an ideal world where there were roles for everyone.

We do not, of course, exist in that ideal world, but the reason I’m compelled to bring it up is the hypothetical of a Dev Patel or a Riz Ahmed being cast, because that strikes me as a net win. They’re names that can pull in a bit of money, the Disney name and IP all but guarantee major profit, and on the slow, complicated road to progress in the realm of opportunity, that opens up more roles for people who “look like them” to Western eyes. It’s not “ideal” as one might put it, but then again what is in this situation? Swap out those two South Asian actors for any actor from any Middle Eastern origin, and you’re left with innumerable situations where the choice doesn’t fit enough people’s idea of what Middle Eastern “should” look like given the vastness of that label, all the countries, cultures and religions it includes, and all the people who are underrepresented. So even if I remove myself and my South Asian siblings from the mix, this is something that could be misconstrued in any given outcome. Which is not to say they shouldn’t try and find Middle Eastern performers, but as it’s been brought up, that already means so many different things to so many different people that there’s no way this one role can satisfy everyone.

Look, the casting process is complicated and multi-tiered, and this particular casting process isn’t even complete yet. We can’t expect the filmmakers to throw any talented “brown” actor into the mix if they lack the things they’re looking for – which, in all likelihood, is what’s causing the delay – and while the conversation surrounding who should or shouldn’t be cast in a discernibly Middle Eastern part at this point in time is one absolutely worth having, the idea that they haven’t found the right person yet because they might think there aren’t any right people out there who are ethnically in line with whatever stereotype salad-world this movie will take place in is simply untrue. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not the biggest fan of Aladdin)

Sure, some of it might even be chalked up to incompetence – the THR report cites an agent who called the testing process “a mess” – in which case, yeah! They better get their act together if they don’t want to push things back even further! But as far as the idea that they might give up on their search and simply whitewash the role, I’m afraid that fear is unfounded – and, to a degree, unfair to folks trying to do the right thing within a system that doesn’t often allow it. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a high bar to clear, but if filmmakers are pushing up against the studio’s timeframe to make sure we don’t get to that reality once again, then perhaps they’re on the right side of this. Let's let them get it as right as they can before picking it apart.