The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time made more headlines than the film itself, and rightly so. With the popular franchise set in the exotic Arabian deserts, it was a shock that Hollywood would decide to cast some white guy (as talented as Gyllenhaal may be) as the Prince in the film adaptation. Even Asian American actress Ming-Na made a sarcastic remark about the casting decision on Twitter, furthering the disbelief that the entertainment industry would go as far as placing a white, American male in the lead role of a swashbuckling Persian prince, alongside other non-Iranian actors like Gemma Arterton, Sir Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina. But hey, if M. Night Shymalan can do this in The Last Airbender, then what's stopping Jerry Bruckheimer?
Yet, is really Hollywood at fault for the white-washing of our beloved Prince? Should the public outrage against Jake Gyllenhaal be better directed towards the game developers behind the Prince of Persia games? Kevin recently outlined the history of the game, from Jordan Mechner's innovative development of the game mechanics to the creation of a successful franchise, but not once does Mechner or Ubisoft address the cultural aspects of their swash-buckling hero. Mechner does admit that he's never been to Iran nor is an expert on the culture, but based his research on reading ancient texts and from "talking to friends who know more about Persia than I do." (Yeah, and I have Black friends, too.)
From all looks, the early video game Prince represents the Western exotification of the Middle East, with his feather topped turban, the inevitable MC Hammer pants and the Aladdin-esque vests (where shirts are apparently optional). His adventures epitomize everything we love to fantasize about the Arabian Nights, where camels roam golden sand dunes, genies grant wishes and beautiful, veiled belly dancers hide in pillow-filled harems. The villains only add to the cultural fantasy, like the evil Vizier threatening to undermine the Sultan's power or the sultry Kaileena, whose skimpy clothing (or lack therof) would probably never fly in ancient Iranian culture. Prince of Persia sums up the American gamer's wet dream of the exotic and ancient Orient.
The evolution of the hero throughout the various Prince of Persia games also reflects a continuous white-washing of the Persian inspired storyline. Blogger Jehanzeb of Muslim Reverie points out that even the Prince himself has been subjected to a literal reverse tan in the 2008 game, Prince of Persia. Though our protagonist always had the exotic elements around him, from exotic costumes to the curved swords, he was clearly delineated as Persian. Yet, his most recent look was a clear step away from any ethnic culture, complete with an emo haggy haircut. Even the actor behind the Prince--the talented Nolan North--topped the character off with the all-American white boy voice that had the red, white and blue accent.
In fact, one could argue that the Prince's appearance in the 2008 game--where he strangely looks more like Jake Gyllenhaal than ever before--could have inspired the people behind the feature film. Yes, I know the movie plot is based on the Sands of Time game, but having the 2008 version out during the film's production probably helped inspire casting decisions. Hey, if the Prince already looks and sounds kind of like Jake Gyllenhaal, why not put him in the main role?
On the other hand, the characters in Prince of Persia represent an aspect of Iranian culture that we often ignore: people from Iran don't necessarily all look the same and our own perception of the Middle East is inundated with American based misconceptions and stereotypes. However, it's clear that the original game series was created with the same cultural misunderstandings--and was quite successful from doing so. For those objecting Jake Gyllenhaal's role, focusing on a franchise that never properly valued Iranian culture would be misleading in the quest for accurate representation.
[B]y mere fact of its name and Middle Eastern trappings, the game invokes and raises them. Yes, there is danger and potential futility in taking works of mass fare too seriously. Yet there is also danger in employing cultural symbols of such power so blithely, with such a willful disregard for reality.
That's not to say there's something inherently wrong with Prince of Persia. It's an iconic title that revolutionized the gaming industry, both through gameplay and storylines. Pretending to play in an exotic culture is fun. Who wouldn't want to parkour their way across a magical world, accompanied by a princess wearing capri pants? I definitely would.
Are we excusing Hollywood from casting Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince? Absolutely not. Disney lost a great opportunity to add a more authentic and historical angle to Prince of Persia by placing non-Iranian actors in the title roles. Jerry Bruckheimer seems to miss this point in one interview when asked about balancing artistic license with intercultural respectfulness:
We’ve tried to pay homage to the greatness and beauty of Persian culture and history while at the same time creating a story of fantasy and magic for all audiences to enjoy.
Paying your respects to ancient Persia doesn't quite come through when you're watching Jake Gyellanhaal speak with a fake British accent. But to those complaining about the white-washing of the Prince of Persia film, perhaps it would be best to understand that the source material was flawed in the first place. This prince is not Persian, and he never was to begin with. Still, it's hard not to miss that turban and those pointy shoes.