Disney’s live-action Aladdin‘s was always going to be an issue because the original animated film was majorly problematic. The animated film is one of the most well-known Disney films and like much of Disney’s catalog has problems. For example, the opening song “Arabian Nights” required a lyric change. Originally, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” switched to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” Already, Disney was off to a great start.
Secondly, both Aladdin and Jasmine shared Anglicized features and Anglo-American accents in contrast to pretty much everyone else. Everyone but the Sultan had foreign accents, dark skin, and stereotypical grotesque facial features with mustaches. Thirdly, the film sexualized Jasmine, especially in her scenes after Jafar uses the genie to do what he wants. Dressed in shackles, a chain, and little clothing, Jasmine even kisses Jafar to distract him.
Finally, for the premise of this article, the whole movie is the best of Indian and Arab stereotypes smashed together. It makes sense then that Arab and Indian (really South Asians in general) laid claim to the only Disney movie we really have when it came time to make the live action adaptation.
When the news broke that Guy Ritchie and the film team were having issues finding Arab or Indian actors who could sing and dance, the reaction was immediate. Hollywood has no problem finding Arabs and South Asians for terrorist roles. Why is it suddenly having ‘issues’ now?
Others pointed out that the largest film industry, Bollywood, has plenty of actors who can sing, dance, and act all in English! Plus, Disney already used Turkish Deniz Akdeniz and Indian-Chinese Karen David as Aladdin and Jasmine in Once Upon a Time, which I wrote about last year.
Ultimately, Egyptian Mena Massoud and British-Gujarati Naomi Scott have been chosen for Aladdin and Jasmine. Arab and South Asian fans freaked out in both excitement and anger. The anger stemmed specifically from Arab-Americans stating that a Indian actress had “stolen” the Jasmine role.
Ownership of Aladdin
Therein lies the issue. The individual roles were never primarily Arab or Indian. The casting call, originally for Middle Eastern actors, got extended to Indian actors. For the most part, Aladdin is understood as a vaguely Arab-Indian film given the cultural ‘influences’ in the animated feature. The reality is that a French translator added the Chinese tale to the 1001 Nights collection. It is ridiculous to state that all the actors must be either Arab or Indian when the designs are both.
Plus, the only other character cast so far is Will Smith as the genie. I have no idea how I feel about that. On one hand, jinn are creatures of fire and do not have any distinguishing features to place into a racial category. Technically any jinn that takes on the shape of a human could be any race. On the other, the setting of Agrabah, a fictional amalgam of the Middle East and India calls for Arab and Indian actors.
The casting team might choose Arab, Indian, or even North African actors for Jafar and the Sultan. The entire film should have MENA and Indian actors, but I doubt that will occur.
Disney’s Aladdin then is the perfect microcosm of many issues in media representation in Hollywood. Generally, South Asian and Arab actors have only been terrorists. There are few popular movies with Arabs or South Asians. Both communities (understandably) feel connected to Aladdin. Its entire premise however, makes this live-action adaptation already a problem that will continue to grow if the film team does not have a successful cast and script to utilize.
Image Courtesy of Disney