DiCaprio as Rumi? Twitter erupts with whitewashing outcry

  • 11 Jun 2016

#RumiWasntWhite explodes on social media as Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown draw fierce criticism from all circles for floating Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr as Rumi, Shams of Tabriz.

Depiction of Jalaluddin Rumi and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. ( TRT World and Agencies )

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.

Actor Robert Downey Jr. arrives at the European premiere of 'Captain America, Civil War' at a shopping centre in East London.(Reuters)

This did not go down well on Twitter where users expressed their frustration with Hollywood whitewashing via the hashtag #RumiWasntWhite.

Many people questioned how DiCaprio, who is Italian American, will change the stereotypes Franzoni is talking about.

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.

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'."

Sayed Badreya portrayed Abu Bakar in Iron Man.(TRT World and Agencies)

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.

Drawing of Shams Tabrizi by Jacopo188.(Creative Common licence)

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.