Leonardo DiCaprio As Rumi: Whitewashing, Not ‘Challenging Stereotypes’

David Franzoni wants Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, a Persian poet born in 1207, according to The Guardian. Franzoni, a screenwriter who wrote Gladiator, is writing a biopic centered on Rumi.

“He’s like a Shakespeare,” Franzoni said. “He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”

Rumi, whose full name is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, or Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, is Persian and was born in what is now Afghanistan. Apparently, those involved in this project want to create a film that will challenge stereotypes that are placed upon Muslim characters on screen.

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“It’s a very exciting project – and obviously challenging,” Franzoni continued. “There are a lot of reasons we’re making a product like this right now. I think it’s a world that needs to be spoken to; Rumi is hugely popular in the United States. I think it gives him a face and a story.”

Unfortunately, the face he wants to give Rumi is that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s. Along with that, Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown also want Robert Downey Jr. as the mystic Shams of Tabriz, an Iranian Muslim. We just dealt with Gods of Egypt, and Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead in the Ghost in the Shell remake and Marvel Studios’ decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Hollywood, we just dealt with this…and yet we have to continue to yell and scream because you clearly are not listening.

Anybody asking if Leonardo DiCaprio being cast as Rumi is whitewashing is just being irresponsible. Stop asking that question. It’s whitewashing, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise. See, this is what white people will do when they want to turn something to their favor. They’ll go around and ask the question as if it’s something you’re allowed to be subjective about, as if these are just opinions. And at the end of their articles, they will have the audacity to write things like, “so what do you think about all of this?” “Do you think this is whitewashing?” You keep presenting this like it’s an opinion, which is highly responsible.

The term Whitewashing has an exact definition and it’s not an opinion, it’s not up for debate – especially with those who suffer from it.

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It’s odd. When it comes to stereotypical terrorists, murderers or rapists, Hollywood is more than happy to cast an Iranian, Afghan, Palestinian, Arab or Persian actors – or frankly anybody who could pass as being Middle Eastern. But when it’s somebody like this, a famous and beloved poet, oh it has to be a white actor. Because when they think of purity, they think white. To them, this “challenges” Muslim stereotypes because they’ll be portraying a Persian character who doesn’t fit any negative stereotypes we often see – but fail to recognize that casting a white person in that role is perpetuating a disgusting trend of erasing people of color from the screen, as well as from important figures in their culture. in this particular case, Persians.

Filmmaker and critic Imran Siddiquee said it best when he took to Twitter to state his thoughts.

“It’s not just about DiCaprio or RDJ being cast, they may or may not be, it’s that the men in charge of the film think this is a great idea. These are the men who have the funding and support to make a major Hollywood film about Rumi. And they think DiCaprio is the best choice. The idea that Leo DiCaprio is the best actor in the world for every part ever in history is all about worshipping whiteness. This is what we mean when we say that centering whiteness in your story is a choice — it always carries a meaning.”

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Even if you believe that an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio is the only sane choice to play the role because it’s the only way the film will be financially successful (which is not true), do you really think the backlash and negative buzz surrounding this film will allow it to be successful? Just look at Gods of Egypt. Sure, the movie was horrible but plenty of horrible movies make bank at the box office. There was no way that movie was going to be financially successful after audiences and critics ripped it apart for its blatant whitewashing – before the film had even been released.

It’s not enough for Franzoni and Brown to disavow this, as well as the studio. Leonardo DiCaprio needs to step up and disavow it as well. Robert, you, too. You’re not helping by staying silent. It doesn’t matter if you’re not actively going after these rolls, if you’re not willing to acknowledge your white privilege and condemn it and those who support it, you’re still part of the problem.

[Image via M Dogan/Shuttershock]