White actors pretending to be members of darker complected races/ethnic groups such as Mestizo Hispanics, Amerindians (sometimes called "Redface"), Indians, Inuits or Middle Easterners. This is often done with makeup or tanning. Hair dye may also be used. This practice is especially common in Westerns, one of the oldest and most popular genres in filmmaking. Taking place in The Wild West, the genre frequently focuses on clashes between American frontiersmen and Native Americans in Injun Country. Back in the early days of Hollywood, however, Native American actors were few and far between, as well as mostly unwelcome in white-controlled Hollywood. Thus, the tradition of Brownface in this genre began, in which white or other races of actors use makeup to play Native American characters. As media have increasingly depicted Mestizo Latino characters, the trope has expanded to include nonwhite Latino characters as well. Brownface is still seen in modern productions. Lately, Hollywood prefers casting actors who look enough like Native Americans without using makeup when actual Native American actors aren't used. This is even more common with Latino characters, who have a greater latitude due to the fact that there are White Latinos. In fact, the trope might be used unnecessarily on an actor who can already pass for Hispanic by darkening them to meet the perception that Latino Is Brown. This is a subtrope of Fake Nationality. Occasionally used as a method for creating Human Aliens. Compare Blackface and Yellowface for black and Asian characters, respectively. Note that unlike those tropes, Brownface does not necessarily require makeup, as some white actors can be sufficiently dark-skinned to resemble the nationality they are impersonating. Conversely, many Ambiguously Brown foreigners have clearly Caucasoid or near-Caucasoid features beneath their dark skin, so it's not as much of a stretch as trying to pass for a person of African or Asian descent. For perhaps the same reason, Brownface doesn't seem to carry anything close to the stigma of the other two tropes. Typically, Brownface for a white actor could just be the effect of spending a lot of time in the tanning booth. Not to mention post-production color correction, the Orange/Blue Contrast can have a very similar effect on skin tone.
open/close all folders
- Iron Eyes Cody, famous as "The Crying Indian", was an Italian-American who passed himself off as Native American in real life for decades.
- Ashton Kutcher once darkened his face to play a stereotypical Indian man in a Pop Chips commercial.
- Viva Villa! is an entire film about Pancho Villa and The Mexican Revolution that doesn't employ a single Mexican. Most obvious with the makeup job on lily-white Fay Wray.
- Spaghetti Westerns typically cast Spaniards and Italians as Mexicans and Native Americans, since they were typically filmed in Spain and made by Italians.
- Eli Wallach, a Polish-American Jew, plays Mexican bandits in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven.
- Brotherhood of the Wolf has Mark Dacascos as a Native American. Dacascos has Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Spanish and Irish ancestry, but no Native American. He does not use makeup.
- Jacob Black in the Twilight movies is played by Taylor Lautner, who has only "distant" Native American ancestry. He does not use makeup. Most of the other werewolves are played by people with more prominent Native American heritage.
- The very white Spencer Tracy seems to have used some kind of makeup to darken his skin when playing a Portuguese fisherman in 1937's Captains Courageous.
- Averted in Argo, a film about the Iranian hostage crisis; the white Ben Affleck only darkens his hair to play White Latino CIA agent Tony Mendez.
- Vasquez from Aliens is played by a white Jewish actress. She is considerably darker-skinned in that role than she is in real life.
- Johnny Depp plays Tonto in the The Lone Ranger. Of course, the issue doesn't really come up: not only is Depp (allegedly) of Indian descent himself, but Tonto spends nearly the whole film with white clay spookily smeared on his face (which, absurdly, doesn't even wash off when he jumps underwater!). In-Universe examples also include several white outlaws impersonate Comanche Indians in order to massacre settlers and provoke a war.
- In Quantum of Solace, the fair-skinned Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko has much darker skin as her Bolivian character, Camille.
- Gemma Arterton, a fair-skinned Englishwoman, looks considerably tanner while playing the Persian princess Tamina in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Curiously enough, some Persians are as fair skinned as many Northern Europeans, but a fair Gemma Arterton would not be convincingly Persian to Western audiences — mostly due to the fact that her actual facial features are unambiguously northern European, as opposed to middle-eastern.
- Fair-skinned English comedian Peter Sellers wears brown makeup to play Indians in The Millionairess and The Party.
- In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, a real-life journalist with a Dutch father and an African-White Cuban-Chinese mother. Jolie's skin is slightly darker and her hair is made curly to resemble Pearl more. The casting caused a minor outcry in spite of the fact that Pearl had personally approved the casting.
- Little Big Man has Dustin Hoffman as a Cheyenne.
- In The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, who is described in the books as being olive-skinned, though no one's race is ever described. Lawrence appears more tan and her blonde hair is dyed brown to play the role. Her hair is black in the sequel.
- Christopher Lee, an English actor of Italian ancestry, played Gandhi's Pakistani opposite number, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in the film Jinnah, and needed very little make-up to do so since Jinnah was fairly light-complexioned. Casting a foreigner, especially one known in his home culture for his villains, still caused a lot of controversy.
- The Frenchman Pierre Briece is most famous for his role as Apache chief Winnetou.
- In Short Circuit, white actor Fisher Stevens darkens his face to play Indian Ben Jahvri.
- Charlton Heston darkened his hair to play a Mexican detective in Touch of Evil. His makeup is hard to gauge since the film is black and white.
- While still blonde, Elsa Pataky (Spanish actress of Romanian-Hungarian descent on her mother's side) is more tanned and has her hair darker than usual in her first Hollywood role, the passenger Maria in Snakes on a Plane. This is completely avoided in her later role as Brazilian police officer Elena Neves in the The Fast and the Furious franchise.
- In both The Sheik and its sequel The Son of the Sheik, a bunch of very white actors are tasked with playing Arabs. This is most notable in the sequel with Karl Dane, who was Danish, but still managed to look brown to play Rudolph Valentino's Arab sidekick.
- In The Searchers, the Comanche Scar was played by Henry Brandon, a blue-eyed German.
- Lawrence of Arabia: Alec Guiness, an English actor, plays Prince Feisal, an Arab.
- White man Douglas Fairbanks plays a half-white half-Native American character in The Half-Breed.
- Almost all Hollywood versions of Ramona featured white actors in both leading roles: an Indian man and a half-Indian woman. Their ethnicity is integral to the plot. The one exception was Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio in the last silent version.
- In F Troop, none of the Hekawi tribesmen are played by actual Native Americans. Most were played by Jews using classic Borscht Belt-style performances. There was even a reference to the Hekawi being the lost 13th tribe of Israel.
- Parodied in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which Dee has a character she performs called Martina Martinez, which is an extremely stereotypical Latina with an artificially brown face and black wig. People who see her in costume are mortified.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, white American actress Robia LaMorte played Jenny (actually Janna) Calendar, a Romani woman pretending to be an Ambiguously Brown American. Confused yet?
- Later on in the Star Trek canon it became common practice for actors playing Vulcan characters to have an olive or bronzed make-up foundation (which makes some sense considering their home planet is very hot, arid and dry, common factors connected to skin tone). The original Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy, was Jewish (in "Chinese yellow" makeup) and many of the later Vulcan actors had a similar background and appearance. It wasn't until the black Tim Russ was cast as Tuvok in Star Trek: Voyager (the first time establishing a distinct ethnic diversity in the Vulcan population) that the make-up practice took hold and the very pale Jolene Blalock was darkened to play T'Pol on Star Trek: Enterprise.
- Leela in Doctor Who was heavily browned up in her early promo-shots to go with her Nubile Savage theme (and possibly to make her look futuristically mixed-race). The makeup she eventually wore on the show was darker than her natural colouring and included brown eye contacts, but was a lot more subtle than in early pictures (which bordered on blackface).
- Reversed for the fairly dark Chicano Chavo Guerrero, who used make up to become paler, in order to fit in better with "middle class America" (one case in a series of race baiting by WWE writers). Ironically, his uncle Eddie Guerrero, who was a good deal lighter-skinned, portrayed a far more stereotypical Chicano character.
- Carmella is actually pretty fair-skinned outside of the ring but wears a really dark tan to portray her Italian-American Joisey. Given that she was introduced as a hairdresser-turned-wrestler, it's not too much of a stretch to suggest the character just likes tanning.
- Averted with Ivelisse Vélez during her time in WWE. Despite wanting to turn her hair brown, WWE insisted she remain blonde. She was also given the name 'Sofia Cortez', a reggaeton entrance theme and billed from her native Puerto Rico - without darkening her fair skin.
- Karlee Perez, who is mixed race but fair skinned, tans up to play the apparently Mexican Catrina in Lucha Underground.
- Quite a few British intelligence officers posed as Indian or Persian merchants while gathering information about Central Asia. Most of them had been living in tropical climates already, and their travels included desert environments, so they ended up pretty tan, and in some cases practically indistinguishable from the people that they were blending in with.
- Sir Richard Francis Burton (not to be confused with the 20th century actor) was notable among this group for journeying in disguise to Mecca. He took the "pretending to be something you're not" aspect of this trope Up to Eleven by being voluntarily circumcised to help avoid detection as a non-believer.
- Some have suggested that US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney got a fake tan before appearing on Univision to better appeal to Latino voters. His ears are noticeably paler than his face.
- Lillian Smith, a trick-shot performer and contemporary of Annie Oakley, pretended to be a Sioux by darkening her skin and calling herself "Princess Wenona" while performing for Mexican Joe's Wild West Show.
- Walter B. Harris, a British writer established in Morocco, used dark makeup and dressed like a Moroccan to gather information for his books.
- When Robert Beltran was cast as Chakotay, an American Indian character on Star Trek: Voyager, the producers, wanting to avoid this trope, asked him if he had any Indian in his heritage. His response was, "Gee, I'm only Mexican." His point: not all "American" Indians come from North of the Rio Grande.