Backlash grows to plans for Leonardo DiCaprio to ‘whitewash history’ in upcoming film

LEONARDO DiCaprio is at the centre of a massive race row, after thousands signed a petition calling on the Oscar winning actor not to “whitewash” history by playing famed 13th century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi.

The petition calls the notion of casting DiCaprio “both ludicrous and offensive” and implores Oscar winning screenwriter and producer David Franzoni (Gladiator) and producer Stephen Joel Brown to cast a middle eastern actor instead.

“Casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi rewrites history, takes possession of Muslim accomplishments, and gives the credit to a white man,” writes Care2 petition author Valerie Janovic. “Now, when people think of Rumi, they’ll picture him with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.”

The furore has grown since the makers revealed they were chasing DiCaprio and Robert Downey Jr for the lead roles in the film. Neither has signed on. Rumi’s poetry remains popular around the world and he was the best-selling poet in the United States in 2014.

Not everyone is opposed to the casting. Iranian film critic and writer Ahmad Talebinejad said: “He has attractive features and this could bring us closer to the spirituality in Rumi’s face. On the other hand, we don’t truly know which image of Molana (Our Master) is closest to reality.”

The controversy comes hot on the heels of other films involving white actors playing other ethnicities including a huge backlash to DreamWorks casting Scarlett Johansson as the lead in its live-action version on 1995 Japanese anime films Ghost in the Shell and Rooney Mara playing Native American character Tiger Lilly in 2015’s Pan. The producers of Australian shot 2016 film Gods of Egypt apologised for failing to put together a “more diverse cast.”

Hollywood insiders blame the casting of high profile white actors on commercial considerations. Director Ridley Scott was blunt in responding to criticism he had cast white actors in his 2014 biblical film Exodus: Gods and Kings.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he said. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

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