OMG, the Prince of Persia is white!

Written by Zeus on 2010-06-29

The Prince of Persia movie poster.

People are outraged that Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Prince Dastan, the lead character in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He may have played Donnie Darko, but he's just not dark enough, if you get what I'm saying.

I know more about the Star Wars Empire than the Persian Empire, but what little I do know seems to be at odds with the sort of accusations being thrown around. Was casting the half-Jewish-half-Swedish Jake Gyllenhaal as an ancient Persian another case of racist Hollywood "whitewashing"?

Yeee... No.

Here's why:

He Looks The Part

A Tale of Two Princes

Jake Gyllenhaal totally passes for the Prince of Persia. And in Hollywood, if all it takes is a spray-on tan and a little chest hair, you've got the part. That's why Chinese actors are allowed to play Japanese Superheroes, German-Hondurans can play Mexicans, and British people are able to play Elves.

The rules are more complex than they appear at first glance. Sir Ben Kingsley was able to play Mahatma Gandhi, despite needing a lot of dark makeup, because he's part Indian. And he was able to play a Persian in Sands of Time, because he wore a lot of eyeliner.

Ben Kingsley

I once read an interview where Jessica Alba complained that the half-Mexican actress was initially offered a lot of Latino roles, while Cameron Diaz, who is half-Cuban, got "normal" parts. The reason is probably because Alba actually looks Latino, whereas if the naturally blond-haired-blue-eyed Diaz played a Cuban, people would complain Hollywood was "whitewashing" again.

The rule of thumb is, regardless of your actual race, if you can pass for a part without an offensive amount of makeup (just how much is open for debate), you got the part.

Jessica Alba

Jessica Alba as the Nordic Invisible Woman, Sue Storm? I'm offended.

The Original Prince Was Blond

Did Hollywood "turn the character white"? Hardly. In the original Prince of Persia, the game that started it all, the manual described the blond-haired hero as an "Adventurer from a foreign land" who traveled to Persia.

As a fantasy writer, I was angry with "racebending" back when it was called "f--king over Ursula K. LeGuin." Every time some shady producer got that poor woman to sign over the rights to Earthsea and proceeded to cast Caucasians or animated Japanese as the dark-skinned characters from the novels, a little part of me died. But this isn't The Last Airbender, where characters who have always been of-color are suddenly portrayed by white actors. It's closer to Nick Fury, a Marvel hero who once looked like Peter Parker's boss from Spider-Man and is now played onscreen by Samuel L. Jackson.

Jessica Alba

The Sands of Time film adaptation was written and produced by Jordan Mechner, creator of the original game. You know, the guy who decided that the Prince was blond in the first place? Mechner also helped design the 2003 Sands of Time videogame reboot, in which the lead was retconned into an actual Persian Prince. He was given darker hair, blue eyes, and is a dead ringer for the movie character. (See above.)

Mechner was reportedly so happy with the movie's casting that he spent days sketching Jake Gyllenhaal like some lovesick fangirl.

In every reboot and adaptation, the Prince was meant to be Caucasian. And if you think that makes it another case of "a heroic white hero saving helpless brown people," I suggest you read up on Persian history.

Persians Aren't Arabs

"Why doesn't the Prince of Persia look like an Arab?" I hear that from people who should know better. It makes me cringe.

Iranians--or modern day Persians--aren't Arabs. Iran is surrounded by Arab countries, but that's not the same thing. Wondering why Prince Dastan doesn't look "more Arab" is like wondering why the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa doesn't look "more Austrian" or "more Swiss".

It's okay. A lot of people are confused. Stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani even does a Women-Be-Different-Than-Men-style take on the subject.

...Persians Are Caucasian

"Arab or not, why would they hire white guy to play Prince Dastan?"

Yeah, tell me about it. Jake Gyllenhaal is so white, he looks fresh off the Caucasus mountains!

Map of Persia

You know, the mountains within the borders of the Persian Empire?


Believe it or not, Persia was populated by people who could neither jump nor dance.

A few hundred years ago, my country was populated by Native Americans, which means that if they filmed a period piece here, Lou Diamond Phillips might finally get a job. But set the film in the 1950s, rather than the 1450s, and the cast would look more Leave it to Beaver than Dances With Wolves.

Sands of Time is set in a deliberately nebulous "mythological" era of the Persian Empire, but Jerry Bruckheimer narrowed down the timeframe:

Asked point blank by the Times of London, "Isn't Gyllenhaal a bit pale to play a Persian?" Bruckheimer delivered this history lecture. "Persians were very light skinned," he said. "The Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of them were blond and blue-eyed."

[Consultants at BoomGen Studios] confirmed the veracity of Bruckheimer's historical appraisal. "Iranians are Aryans... If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era, all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal."

[Source: LA Times]

In summary, we have a Caucasian actor playing the Caucasian Prince of an ancient land filled with Caucasians.

To all those who wrote ill-informed (even moreso than this one!) rants: Might want to cancel your plans to boycott the DVD release.

Just sayin'.

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