As Disney’s “Prince of Persia” is set for release later this week, I’m noticing more people talking about the casting controversy. As I have expressed in my previous posts (here and here), choosing Jake Gyllenhaal to play a brown character is another example of Hollywood’s Orientalist white-washing and ethnocentrism, as well as denying people of color the opportunity to represent themselves. The most common counter-argument I’m hearing is: “Well, ancient Persians were light skinned.” Producer Jerry Bruckheimer even said this, while adding, “The Turks changed all of that.” Ah yes, those bloody Turks and their dark skin! And how convenient for Hollywood, right? I suppose with those “facts,” they can justify the casting of a White actor to play an ancient Persian hero. But wait a minute, why were the ancient Persians in “300” dark skinned? Hmm.
I would like to present examples from the “Prince of Persia” video games to show how the character’s skin color changed over time.
1. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)
I could write a paper or hold a long discussion about how problematic the cover image above is. The Orientalist fantasy element is quite obvious – note the blue eyes, the Arabic script on his sword (this is supposed to be pre-Islamic Persia), and the Islamic crescents on the minarets. There needs to be an important discussion about masculinity as well (note the bare chest, battle scars), which I will be writing more about in future posts (though perhaps not specifically about “Prince of Persia”). Regardless of these problematic elements, the point is that anyone who played this game knows the character was brown and Middle-Eastern. The game also features an Indian female character named Farah. She does not seem to appear in the film and, as of yet, it isn’t certain that any of the South Asian characters will be featured.
2. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)
If there was any doubt about the Prince being brown in the first game, just take a look at how he is depicted in the sequel. In fact, he is darker in this game; brown and Hrithik Roshan-esque, minus the blue eyes. “Warrior Within” also did a better job staying consistent with Zoroastrian/pre-Islamic Persian mythology. I’m guessing someone informed them about it after all of the Arabic in the first game. And of course, the hyper-masculinity and Orientalism needs to be challenged immensely, but my point here is simply about skin color.
3. Prince of Persia: Two Thrones (2005)
4. Prince of Persia (2008)
Whoa. What happened here?
I found this representation to be quite offensive. What’s important to be informed about is that this character is not the same Prince from the previous three games (did I mention they don’t have names?). The creators of the game wanted to explore “another Prince” (who you don’t really learn much about because he has amnesia). The Prince in this game is light-skinned, as you can see. If anything, he looks like he has a summer tan. Though the gameplay is enjoyable and the female character, Elika (who accompanies you the entire game), is dark-skinned, it was a huge disappointment that the Prince looked very White and Euro-American. Arguments that use this game to justify the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal are inaccurate since the film is based on the first game, “The Sands of Time.” Though it does raise an important question as to why this Prince’s skin is lighter than the previous Prince.
Even if there are disputes about the Prince’s skin color, I still do not understand the argument about ancient Persians being light skinned. It simply sounds like an excuse to cover up the fact that a non-Persian was chosen for the role. It is still racebending, white-washing, and Orientalism. And it must be challenged.
UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah: The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!
UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!
Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned. I am not disputing this. I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin. This particular post is simply a brief content analysis on the character’s skin color in the video games. I am not saying all Persians are brown; I am saying that the Prince is depicted as brown (see pictures above). A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general. I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups. It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.