Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)/Warner Bros.' upcoming film Pan was recently criticized in an online petition attracting nearly 6,000 signatures, after the studio cast white actress Rooney Mara as Native American princess Tiger Lily.

The casting choice was criticized as a big step backwards for Hollywood films, which had made admirable progress over the past several decades in casting actors and actresses of color in appropriate roles.

Tiger Lily and Rooney Mara. (Source: Wikipedia, author's edits)

Pan is director Joe Wright's darker take on Peter Pan's origin, which transports a World War II orphan to Neverland to protect an island's natives against villainous pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Hook. Hugh Jackman and Garrett Hedlund will play Blackbeard and Captain Hook respectively, while newcomer Levi Miller has been cast in the title role.

Hollywood's history of casting the wrong race for the role
Back in Hollywood's early days, it was deemed acceptable to cast white actors as other races. Legends such as Fred Astaire and Judy Garland appeared in blackface, Mickey Rooney infamously portrayed a Japanese caricature in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and John Wayne even played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

"I fight! I love! I conquer like a barbarian!" (John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, 1956)

Over the years, those lines became less clearly defined. Although it was no longer acceptable for white actors to be cast in black roles, it was still common for Latin actors to be cast as Arabs, Asian actors to be broadly cast as any kind of Asian, and white actors assuming the role of any type of European. And of course, English was spoken in all countries across all historical periods.

Despite that mixed progress, several recent films have reverted to casting white men and women in roles clearly written for actors of color. 21, Cloud Atlas, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Edge of Tomorrow all cast white actors in roles intended for Asian characters. Meanwhile, Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Prince of Persia: Sands of Time cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian prince, while The Lone Ranger featured Johnny Depp (who claims to have Cherokee roots) as the Native American hero Tonto.

Racist casting or color-blind casting?
It's easy to criticize these casting choices as racist and inappropriate, but we should also remember that studios have also cast actors of color in roles originally intended for white actors.

In Man of Steel, Lois Lane's boss Perry White was played by Laurence Fishburne. Will Smith played Jim West in Wild Wild West, a role previously played by white actor Robert Conrad. Lana Lang, who was a redhead Caucasian in the comics, was portrayed by Dutch-Chinese actress Kristin Kreuk in Smallville.

Studios refer to this kind of casting as color-blind or integrated casting. While this practice is widely accepted in roles based on contemporary fiction, problems can arise when well-known franchises or historical stories are recast with actors of other races.

For example, BBC One's Merlin featured a black actress, Angel Coulby, as Lady Guinevere, while the Royal Shakespeare Company cast British Nigerian actor David Oyelowo as King Henry VI -- both controversial choices that sparked fierce debates as to whether TV shows or films should sacrifice historical accuracy for casting equality.

Angel Coulby played Guinevere in BBC's Merlin. (Source: Wikipedia)

Of course, it can also be argued that the Arthurian legends were never factual to begin with, and that William Shakespeare himself cast men as women in his original performances, so this contemporary debate could really be much ado about nothing.

Are people overreacting to Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily?
Returning to Pan, the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily can be interpreted in two ways.

Critics will point out Hollywood's long history of derogatory, stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans, which has lasted from the Silent Film era into the modern one. However, Rooney Mara's fans can easily point out that Neverland is not America, so the interpretation of a "native princess" is open to interpretation.

In fact, Tiger Lilly has been portrayed by a Chinese American actress (Anna May Wong), a Japanese actress (Maria Kawamura), an African American actress (Paula Kelly), a Filipino actress (Rhoda Montemayor), and a white actress (Sondra Lee) over the past 90 years. Tiger Lily has actually only been portrayed once in film by a Native American actress -- Q'orianka Kilcher in Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/Syfy's miniseries Neverland.

Q'orianka Kilcher as Tiger Lily/Aaya in Neverland. (Source: Syfy)

Could Pan be a potential blockbuster?
Despite the recent casting controversy, Pan could still be a major box office hit. Peter Pan reboots and retellings have generally fared well critically and commercially.



Production budget

Global box office

Rotten Tomatoes (critics/audience)

Hook (1991)


$77 million

$301 million


Peter Pan (2003)

Universal/ Columbia

$100 million

$122 million


Finding Neverland (2004)


$25 million

$117 million


Source: Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes.

Hook, starring Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, and Dustin Hoffman, remains the most divisive title among critics and audiences, despite being the highest-grossing live-action Peter Pan film ever. Pan could replicate Hook's success, since it also features a high-profile cast of A-list stars and adds a similarly modern twist to the classic tale by warping Peter out of a World War II environment into Neverland.

Warner Bros. apparently has a lot of confidence in Pan's success, since it is pitting it head-to-head against Comcast/Universal's Ted 2 on June 26, 2015. That's a daring bet, since the first Ted film grossed a whopping $549 million at the box office on a budget of $50 million.

My final take
What do you think, dear readers? Did Warner Bros. cross the line by casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, or was this simply an example of color-blind casting?

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.