It looks as if the road to Agrabah is going to be bumpier than we originally anticipated. Disney is currently in the process of filming its live-action adaptation of Aladdin, and while the roles for the main cast have gone to actors of Middle Eastern descent, it sounds like that isn’t the case for everyone populating the streets of the fictional Middle Eastern city. According to the UK’s Sunday Times, background actors in Aladdin are being “tanned” to match the skin tone of the region, and this is patently unacceptable.
Before outrage erupts any further, Disney has already released a statement about what’s going on behind the scenes of the movie. In a statement to Deadline, Disney explained, “Great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen [for Aladdin]. Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.” To the Times, Disney estimated that, “More than 400 of the 500 background performers were Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and Asian.”
Buuuuut it’s that group of 100 or so background actors that have caused a stir. In the Sunday Times‘ story, actor (and Aladdin stand-in) Kaushal Odedra says that he noticed “very fair-skinned” actors being tanned for the movie. Odedra brought this up to another actor on set, continuing:
“I asked a Saudi cast member what he made of having these extras being tanned so heavily and he said it’s unfortunate, but this is how the industry works, and there’s no point complaining about it since it isn’t going to change. Also, if I’d wanted to discuss it, speaking to the almost entirely white crew seemed somewhat intimidating.”
On one hand, yes, it does make sense that only a limited number of people have the right training to do certain stunts or wrangle certain animals and that as a result, some liberties may be taken in casting.
However, that doesn’t justify them darkening the skin tone of anyone to fit a role. Disney made it a big point to cast Middle Eastern actors in the role and put out a huge casting announcement to do so (it was later reported that they were having a “tough time” finding the perfect Aladdin and Jasmine — the roles eventually went to Egyptian-born Canadian Mena Massoud and British-Indian actress Naomi Scott, respectively). This report very much undermines everything Disney set out to accomplish with its diverse casting. On top of that, casting white actors in the roles simply takes away from Middle Eastern actors who now don’t have the work, and might not have work because they were waiting on their big break to come — which could have been filming Aladdin.
Whatever way you look at this, this is a major bummer. Disney can do better and should do better. Aladdin is expected to hit theaters in 2019.