White actors pretending to be members of "brown" races such as Mestizo Hispanics, Amerindians (sometimes called "Redface"), Indians, Aborigines, 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 began, in which white or other races of actors use makeup to play Native American characters. As media have increasingly depicted 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 is strong presence of white Spanish features within the community already. 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
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. For perhaps the same reason, Brownface doesn't seem to carry anything close to the stigma of the other two tropes, though it's being frowned upon more and more lately. Typically, Brownface for a white actor could
just be the effect of spending a lot of time in the tanning booth.
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- 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.
- 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 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 actual Native American actors.
- A 1979 film, Walk Proud, starred Robbie Benson(!!) in brownface as a Mexican-American gang leader. Movie audiences in Latino communities were so offended that there were protests, riots, and boycotts against theaters showing the film.
- In Argo, a film on the Iranian hostage crisis, the white Ben Affleck darkens his hair to play half-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.
- Jackson Rathbone caused a bit of a stir when he said he'd have to get a tan to play Sokka, the Inuit-inspired character for The Last Airbender. He ended up sticking with his regular skin tone.
- Johnny Depp plays Tonto in the upcoming The Lone Ranger.
- In-Universe examples: 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 light enough to pass for Europeans, but a fair Gemma Arterton would not be convincingly Persian to Western audiences.
- There is an anecdote about a Chuck Norris movie being filmed in Vancouver in the 80s. The casting called for people to play Iranian characters, but all Iranians that showed up were turned down for not being 'ethnic' enough.
- Fair-skinned English comedian Peter Sellers wore brown makeup to play an Indian doctor in The Millionairess.
- He also did this for The Party.
- In A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, a real life journalist with a Dutch father and an African-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.
- 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 will be black in the sequel.
- In Gandhi, Ben Kingsley is considerably more tan for his Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi. Kingsley (birth name Krishna Pandit Bhanji) is half Indian himself.
- 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-American 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.
- The film Gods of Egypt has cast white actors to play Egyptian gods. This also counts as Divine Race Lift.
- 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.
- The Klingons of Star Trek: The Original Series were Human Aliens with skin coloring similar to that of many people on Earth. But as a general rule they were played by Caucasian Hollywood actors and stunt performers with darkened skin.
- 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?
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.