Recently, in an exposé released by The Hollywood Reporter about the upcoming live action Aladdin film, it was revealed that Disney is having quite a bit of trouble assembling the cast for the famous film, seeing as – and these are their words, not mine – it’s “unexpectedly complicated” to find Middle Eastern actors who can both sing and dance.
Well I, ever the practicioner of representation in film, am here to call bullsh*t on that, Disney. It’s not just a bad argument, it’s a nonsensical argument – because you really don’t need an actor to be able to sing and dance. But more on that in a moment.
This announcement has caused Social Justice Twitter to spring an outpouring of casting idea for our favorite Arabian princess and her street-urchin love interest – and almost none of them are of Middle Eastern or Arabian descent. Twitter seems to think that South Asian, Bollywood actors are the answer. And I am here to vehemently scream that that is far from the case.
If you look at the original Aladdin animated film (which this live action version is a remake of), the fairytale is very clearly based on a Middle Eastern fairytale, The Book of A Thousand And One Nights. The opening number of the film is a song that pays homage to that culture as well – and throughout the film, Middle Eastern culture is depicted as royalty, as well as realistically to how most people in the region would’ve been in that time period.
Given our current political climate, I think it would be a huge mistake for Hollywood not to cast brown actors from the Middle East or with Middle Eastern descent. This is something that could fly directly in the face of all the fearmongering and hatred pointed at that community of late from our presidential party. Look at the effect Wonder Woman has had on women. Look at what Black Panther seems to be doing for the Black community. Imagine giving Middle Eastern actors that – in a movie that celebrates their culture.
I’m not saying every single actor has to be from the same region. They can find actors across the globe. If you want to remake Aladdin, spend the money to find someone in a different part of the world than America. Put in the effort to respect Middle Eastern culture and Arabian legends/folk lore, because this could not only be a special celebration of those folks, it could increase their representation going forward – in a Hollywood climate that desperately needs more Middle Eastern/brown talent.
Now, onto the issue that these actors have to not only be charismatic and fit the characters, but be able to sing and dance. For one, I find it extremely hard to believe that Disney can’t find any actors to fill those roles. They’ve done it before with white actors. But even further: this idea that the stars of Aladdin have to be the Beyoncé of the Middle East is damaging and reductive. And here’s why.
Emma Watson, who has no history singing in films, was cast as Belle in Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast; Dan Stevens filled the role of her furry counterpart. Neither of them had done a musical before, but such a thing as vocal lessons exist. And autotune, which they clearly used plenty of – particularly for Watson’s Belle. If you can autotune the voices of two white actors who have no experience with a musical, why can’t you do it for the stars of Aladdin?
Instead of ethnicity-washing the role to get bigger names (they, apparently, were courting Riz Ahmed and Naomi Scott to play Aladdin and Jasmine), just cast unknown actors. This is ALADDIN, Disney. It’s not some property no one’s ever heard of. I’d be damned if I didn’t go see a live action version of one of my favorite animated films of all time, no matter who they got to play the leads. Increase Middle Eastern representation and if it’s that serious to you to have star power, cast more known, veteran actors in the supporting, CGI roles. The Genie doesn’t necessarily have to be Middle Eastern.
Find two young actors who have the charisma and acting chops to correctly portray Aladdin and Jasmine. Cast them, and then put them through vocal lessons and dancing lessons. Spend the money instead of expecting triple threats to just fall into your lap. Work hard to make sure the characters come across well first, and then worry about the singing.
And as far as the Bollywood thing: don’t you dare do it, Disney. Sure, South Asian actors are lacking in Hollywood representation too, but this isn’t a story for them. This is a story for Middle Eastern actors. Allow representation, let the cast shine a spotlight on their culture, and please. PLEASE don’t mess this up.