An upcoming biopic announcement has stirred a whitewashing storm as Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni said he would like to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as 13th-century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Rumi.
The award-winning screenwriter told the Guardian that he will work on a Hollywood biopic which will “challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar”.
“Rumi is hugely popular in the United States. I think it [making this film] gives him a face and a story,” Franzoni said.
What has immediately drawn criticism is that the face Franzoni would like to give him is that of white actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
People have taken to social media to voice their frustration under the hashtag RumiWasntWhite.
The 13th-century poet, who is believed to have been born on the eastern outskirts of the then Persian Empire in present day Afghanistan, is extremely popular both within and outside the Muslim world.
Rumi’s spiritual and mystical epics, the Masnavi and the Divan, are widely considered among the best poetry ever written and a pocketbook version of his writings made him the best-selling poet in the United States in 2014.
Franzoni, who wrote the script for the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator, said he has already gone to Turkey with producer Stephen Joel Brown to interview Rumi scholars in Istanbul and to visit his protagonist’s mausoleum in Konya, where the Sufi teacher died in old age.
They said they would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, and Robert Downey Jr to star as the poet’s spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz, though they said it was too early to begin casting. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” said Brown.
usly resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”
The proposed film is still in its embryonic stage, with producers hoping to begin shooting the film next year, and it may never come to light.
The early backlash comes at a time when the OscarsSoWhite controversy has drawn renewed attention on the lack of diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in Hollywood more broadly, the issue of race, skin colour, and casting.