The Prince of Persia videogame franchise has been acclaimed by critics, not only for its innovative gameplay but also for its Middle Eastern protagonist and cast of characters. So it comes as no surprise that Disney’s decision to cast the Swedish-Jewish Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular prince has generated some controversy. Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times noted recently that the film, which is directed by Mike Newell and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, has rubbed a lot of Asian-Americans the wrong way, since literally “none of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent.”
And they probably have a right to be upset. Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in minority roles, and often those characters have been portrayed in stereotypical or offensive ways (Robert Downey Jr. brilliantly satirized this tradition in Tropic Thunder). Still, it’s hard to blame Disney for picking Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, and Alfred Molina to play three of Prince of Persia’s leads; when a studio is investing $200 million (production price people, that's not counting P&A) in a summer movie, they don’t experiment with casting lesser-known, non-white actors. (Of course, there’s reason to hope that paradigm is changing: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was a massive box-office success, and NBC’s upcoming fall comedy Outsourced proves that the networks are recognizing the marketability of larger minority casts.)
Disney has tried to preempt the controversy by hiring marketing firm BoomGen Studios during the film’s scripting process to consult on issues of historical accuracy and cultural sensitivity. Their advice: set Prince of Persia in a decontextualized “mythological” age, avoiding the issue of Islam and other touchy subjects altogether (although apparently Gyllenhaal’s greasy hair-do is completely historically accurate!). According to BoomGen’s co-founder Reza Aslan, Prince of Persia should be “the anti-300,” referring to the Zack Snyder flick that caught flack in 2007 for its vilification of Persians. And what about Gyllenhaal’s casting? “Iranians are Aryans,” Aslan said recently. “If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era, all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal.”
Ha! But even if we accept that the historical Prince was decidedly non-swarthy, I still have some doubts about Gyllenhaal’s casting. Remember, this is the actor who is probably better remembered for his turn as gay cowboy Jack Twist in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain than for his more macho posturing in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead. I’m not sure how that association is going to play with some American audiences.
But more importantly, has anyone else seen the trailer? Gyllenhaal has all of three questionably pronounced lines – four if you include the breathy “Hassassins!” Which probably means that his accent in the movie is hilariously bad. But it also suggests that the marketing team behind Prince of Persia is cautiously backing away from the film’s leading man. In the trailer we get a lot of Gyllenhaal twirling, flipping, and generally failing to scowl convincingly – but he’s suspiciously quiet, even demure, and overshadowed by Gemma Arterton’s narration. Are the filmmakers hedging their bets by downplaying Gyllenhaal’s role?
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened as No. 1 in 18 of the 19 international markets it was released in this weekend, but failed to garner the box office grosses of Kingdom of Heaven or Iron Man, which Disney was using as benchmarks. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from that (studio execs are blaming the heat), but I say Prince of Persia is going to need a little bit of luck domestically to make the kind of money Bruckheimer is gunning for. Then again, what else are you going to watch this weekend, Sex and the City 2? Booo. At least Gyllenhaal and company will be doing something more exciting in the desert than wandering around looking for Cosmos and discussing fake orgasms.
Source: LA Times