The Aladdin Discourse: Disney And Browning Up Extras

By: Faatimah Essack

If I had a dime for every time the upcoming Disney live-action Aladdin adaptation was involved in controversy, I’d surely be richer than the Sultan of Agrabah. Slated for a 2019 release, the film has already had its fair share of issues, not unlike the Mulan adaptation. The two have one very specific thing in common, it dwells outside the realm of European culture (if we can call it that) and suddenly Disney has to be more respectful about the material they handle and produce.

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On a surface level, it puts Disney in a wonderful light, finally granting people the representation they desire and diversifying the very mayo content. However, the only thing that Disney seeks to gain, like all other corporations, is money. They commodify and benefit from Asian cultures, without doing the necessary research or putting in the required effort. Aladdin ended up being a pseudo Arab depiction, which was heavily influenced by Indian culture. It blended the two cultures together and yet when a non-arab, Naomi Scott (of Indian and European descent) was cast as Jasmine she was met with scorn and anger. I don’t defend the casting and do agree that it was partially ‘white-washed’ as she is of a much lighter skin tone than Jasmine herself, however our small blessing is that she is still a PoC.

I think, in an effort to rectify the casting, they scraped the Tiger named Rajah (a very real link to the Indian culture) and gave Jasmine a human friend played by Nasim Pedrad who is Iranian-American. Perhaps, now, the cast was looking a little too brown for Disney’s tastes, I mean having actual Arab actors for a movie set in Arabia? That does seem like quite a stretch. To subtly balance out all this unjust melanin, Disney sought to white-up the background and even create an entire white secondary character.

Billy Magnussen was cast as Prince Anders, a potential and highly unnecessary suitor for our beloved and independent Jasmine. Being of Indian Muslim descent, I am just going to say I find it incredibly unfathomable that Jasmine’s father would want her to marry a spice-less white boy, even if he is a Prince, especially during that time period. The inclusion of a white character in a world like this, seems like an attempt to make the film more palatable to white audiences. Call it the “Token white guy” if you will. An example of such a character is Jerry Ferrera(of Italian descent) in the primarily African-American movie “Think like a man”. Back in 2016, the Mulan adaptation was also blasted with rumours over a potential white love interest for the titular character, however Disney later claimed it was just in a potential script they had purchased.

If this news wasn’t enough, it recently was reported that Disney has been ‘browning up’ white extras, who play roles such as camel handlers , dancers and were required for special effects purposes. They have however maintained that only 100 extras were white, in comparison to the 400 of Middle Eastern and Indian/Asian descent. I remain steadfast in the belief that even if they wanted all the extras to blend seamlessly, there is no excuse for brown face.

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To further illustrate the challenges faced by actors of colour, British-Pakistani Actor Riz Ahmed wrote that there were three stages in his acting career,

“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype — the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace.

Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace.

And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.”

Actors of colour, more often than not, start off as extras and background characters. Disney, on the other hand, if they have leads of colour, they certainly can’t have extras of colour too, that just wouldn’t be fair (seeing as this is the desired skin tone.) The laughable part is that Disney claims this is their most diverse movie yet, but I think the filmmakers should take direction from Black Panther. Marvel is owned by Disney, and manages to have a story set in an African country, with no “white extras”, a wonderful mostly black cast, of varying skin tones too. This just proves that if the effort is put in, big budget movies focused on specific cultures and groups of people, with the correct representation, are possible.

The biggest downfall moving forward, in my opinion that the Aladdin movie is faced with, is that of its director. Guy Ritchie is just a famous name with a few sub-par action movies under his belt. In the eyes of Disney, he is a mere cash-cow to churn out profits. He has no grasp on Middle Eastern culture and the casting department runs rampant with horrible decisions. If we look at the success of Wonder Woman having an actual women direct (Patty Jenkins), this sets an example of how greatly a film can benefit when it is helmed by someone who understands the dominant characters and content.

At this point, I am tired of watching this saga unfold and asking Disney to do better. Brown people and our culture are nothing more than an untapped market for you to exploit. In a way you could call it colonial film-making. They find a rich and untouched story, throw in a few white people in the background, they eventually take over, claim our tales and resources and then leave, expecting us to be grateful for all they have done for us. We deserve more respect than we are being given. We deserve not to be brown props in a grand scheme. That said, I probably will still watch this movie purely because it could be the only big budget movie where brown people are not the antagonist terrorist group and because of how much Jasmine meant to me as a little brown girl growing up. However, I could do with a little less orientalism, but maybe that’s asking for too much.

Editor: Trianna Nguyen

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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