Thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding a Middle Eastern actor should be cast in a film about Persian poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi instead of Leonardo DiCaprio.
Over 7,000 people have signed the petition calling on filmmakers to cast a Middle Eastern actor in the biopic about the 13th century scholar, instead of The Revenant star.
DiCaprio is reportedly currently the first choice for the role, but fans of the poet who started the petition have called his casting “ludicrous”, “offensive”, and another example of Hollywood whitewashing – a casting practice in the film industry in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles.
Rumi was a poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic whose influence transcended national borders and ethnic divisions. His spiritual and mystical epics, the Masnavi and the Divan, are widely considered among the best poetry ever written and have been translated into numerous languages.
Screenwriters David Franzoni, writer of Gladiator, and Stephen Joel Brown told the Guardian in a recent interview that they hope to “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema” by charting his life, before stating their intention to cast DiCaprio in the lead and fellow actor Robert Downey Jr as Iranian mystic Shams of Tabriz.
However, the petition, set up by Valerie Janovic, reads: “Casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Rumi rewrites history, takes possession of Muslim accomplishments and gives the credit to a white man. Now, when people think of Rumi, they’ll picture him with pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes.”
“Muslim actors are readily typecast as terrorists but when a movie portrays a Muslim in a positive light, they are shunted off to the side to make room for another white actor. The casting for the Rumi movie is not yet final and together we can change it.”
The lack of diversity in film has been a controversial issue since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) failed to nominate a single black actor in its leading Oscars categories for the second year running.
The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, and Scarlett Johansson as Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell have also sparked similar criticism.
Meanwhile, suggestions that Idris Elba be cast as British super-spy James Bond were met with similar objections because of his race.