That Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni and blockbuster producer Stephen Joel Brown said they would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play the lead role in a biopic on 13th century Persian poet Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi has caused outrage on the internet.
Franzoni, best known for the Gladiator, has teamed up with Brown for the Rumi movie which they hope to begin shooting in 2017.
Talking to The Guardian, Franzoni said he wanted to break away from the "stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema" by making a movie where the protagonist was the Sufi poet.
"He’s like a Shakespeare. He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”
Yet, instead of looking at non-white actors or those of Persian descent to truly break away from "stereotypes", Franzoni and Brown are looking at a very white DiCaprio for the role of Rumi and the Iron Man—Robert Downey Jr—to play Shams of Tabriz who was Rumi's close companion and mentor.
This did not go down well on Twitter where users expressed their frustration with Hollywood whitewashing via the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.
— omid safi (@ostadjaan) June 9, 2016
So, Idris Elba can't play Bond because that is a white character but Leonardo DiCaprio can play Rumi. #RumiWasntWhite
— Madiha Sajid (@madihasaj) June 7, 2016
Hollywood insists that people only want movies w/ white actors, the reality is *they* only want movies w/ white actors. #RumiWasntWhite
— Kirsten Thompson (@katannthompson) June 8, 2016
The idea that Leo DiCaprio is the best actor in the world for every part ever in history is all about worshipping whiteness
— Imran Siddiquee (@imransiddiquee) June 7, 2016
Many people questioned how DiCaprio, who is Italian American, will change the stereotypes Franzoni is talking about.
They need white guy to play Rumi due to uncomfortable fact the real Rumi probably wouldn't make it through U.S. airport security these days.
— Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain) June 8, 2016
Hollywood Guide to Challenging Muslim Stereotypes, Step 1: Cast white actors as your Middle Eastern main characters. https://t.co/emSG1yzd3E
— Nima Shirazi (@WideAsleepNima) June 6, 2016
Since 9/11, there has been an upward trend in mainstream cinema of typecasting South East Asian or those of Middle Eastern descent as terrorists. This was also brought up by Twitter users.
But when Hollywood needs a Muslim terrorist they get a brown person but to depict Rumi they take DiCaprio. Bullshit! https://t.co/yfEb9lchpP
— Mahera Rahman (@Maahi_Ve) June 10, 2016
Middle Easterns have almost no POSITIVE representation in hollywood.Whitewashing our history while giving us terrorist roles #RumiWasntWhite
— Amal Sh. (@MalMalal) June 9, 2016
So they want a white man to play Rumi, a SUFI PERSIAN poet, but when they need a terrorist they find Muslim actors so easily #RumiWasntWhite
— Aayesha (@AayeshaJ) June 7, 2016
Middle Eastern actors, such as Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, and Sayed Badreya, earlier spoke to Jon Ronson of GQ in an in-depth interview. They explained how the only roles available for them were those of terrorists killing people and shouting Allahu Akbar.
"We had a really beautiful moment in an Arabic wedding scene," Badreya, who played Abu Bakar in Iron Man, told GQ. "And the producer, Joel Silver, saw it and said, ‘No, no. This is nice. I want a bad Arab. We don't want a good Arab'."
Jalaluddin Rumi's life
Rumi was born in 1207 in the city of Balkh, present day Afghanistan. He was born into a Persian-speaking family of theologians. They fled their homeland after the Mongol invasion, eventually settling in Konya or what is present day Turkey.
Around 1244, Rumi’s life changed forever when he met a mystic named Shamsuddin of Tabriz. They became close friends and would spend hours talking about the mysteries of life.
But the friendship ended in heartache, when Shams of Tabriz was allegedly killed by Rumi’s students in December 1248.
Ironically, Rumi’s grief at losing his dear friend produced some of his greatest writings of all time. Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The works of Shams of Tabriz contains couplets dedicated to his companion.
Rumi also composed six volumes of spiritual writing. Translated as Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning, the work aims to teach Sufi mystics how to reach their goal attaining love and closeness with God.
Rumi’s works speak of love, truth, the abandonment of the ego for the seeker to attain the mercy of God and serving humanity without discrimination of race or class.
He died in 1273 and is buried in Konya, Turkey.