Ethics Quiz (Movie Division): “The Impossible,” Whitewashing, and Betrayal

"Bennett" and Belón

“Bennett” and Belón

I suppose some of you may have thought about this two years ago, when the Spanish film “The Impossible” was first released. I, however, take a while to catch up with my movie-viewing, and though the film was much praised by critics and got Naomi Watts an Academy Award nomination, I had not seen the film until recently. “The Impossible,” about as accurately as a motion picture can, tells the amazing story of how Spanish physician María Belón, her husband Enrique Álvarezs, and her three young sons miraculously  survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami when the family was on vacation in Thailand.

It is an engrossing, harrowing movie. I was surprised to find out, however that the family’s name wasn’t “Bennett,” and that they weren’t British, as the movie presented them. Apparently to maximize box office receipts, the film makers decided to take the heroic story of a real family and make the characters “more relatable” by recasting them as English-speaking Brits. There was a minor controversy about the film “whitewashing” the story*, but not much of that made it into the mainstream media. Belón, after all, is white. She was an active participant in the appropriation of story and that of her husband and sons, and they all profited from it, at least financially. Still, the movie’s point of view left a bad taste in the mouths of some international critics. Here is Australian critic Ruby Hamad:

“Based on the true story of a dark haired and darkish-skinned Spanish family, the filmmakers admitted to changing their nationality and casting lily-white actors in order to make the story ‘universal’. In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole. For this reason, Thailand and its people are mere backdrops for the story of a Caucasian family who learn the hard way that even western privilege is no match for the brute force of mother nature.”

Your (two-year late) Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, therefore, is:

Is “The Impossible” unethical”?

It is a tough one for me. The film makers have every right to maximize box office and profits; Watts is a bankable star (and a fine actress). I have no ethical problem with films manipulating the facts of a compelling story, even a historical event, as long as the audience isn’t misled into believing something significant is true that is not, like so much of Oliver Stone’s misrepresentations in “JFK.” I have much more difficulty excusing film portrayals of real people that wrongly impugn their character or contributions to history. For example, he slanderous suggestion in “Titanic” that first officer William Murdoch accepted a bribe and committed suicide during the sinking was as unforgivable slur on the memory of a likely hero. In “Lincoln,” screenwriter Tony Kushner cavalierly showed specific Connecticut congressmen voting against the Thirteenth Amendment when in fact they voted in the affirmative. “1776” shows Founder James Wilson as an indecisive weenie, which he decidedly was not, nor did he cast the decisive vote swing vote that moved Pennsylvania into the pro-independence column as the climax of the film and musical suggests. That distinction was John Morton’s, but because the musical chose to make Wilson an ironic coward (he votes for the Declaration, even though he opposes it, because he fears being “remembered” as the man who blocked independence), Morton’s pivotal historic moment is ignored and forgotten. Taking off from Kushner’s dismissive comments that the historical details in a film don’t matter, that criticizing historical inaccuracies is like arguing that Lincoln never wore “green socks,” I  wrote:

“…there needs to be an ethical doctrine of excessive harm—to public knowledge, history, and real people. Destroying a courageous public servant’s reputation isn’t like using the wrong color socks. I refuse to believe that Kushner couldn’t have accomplished the same dramatic objectives without making those Connecticut lawmakers look like Klan members. He just didn’t care…they were just socks to him. William Murdoch’s reputation was just socks to Cameron, and LBJ’s good name was just socks to Oliver Stone. It’s true: artists have a right to twist facts and history however they choose for what they believe are “greater historical truths” or even for more butts in the seats, more cheers at the credit or more dollars in their pockets. It still is wrong for them to do so recklessly, needlessly and with arrogant disregard for the consequences of their work. People are not socks.”

The unethical betrayal of fact in “The Impossible” is a variation from the usual practice of smearing the dead. “The Impossible” robs the living of the legacy of courage they suffered to create. My God…Belón and her family showed extraordinary valor and determination in this ordeal, and then their incredible story was represented to millions worldwide as the experience of a fictional family from another country? I would be furious, if I had endured what they had endured only to have my identity swept away as brutally as the tsunami swept away so many lives. I would have thought, “This is my ordeal, my achievement, my story, and it has been taken from me!” It would be like telling Oskar Schindler’s story as “true,” but presenting his character as a blond Swede named Svensen:

SeeSvensen’s List”: This is a true story, but we changed the name of the hero because it would make us more money, and nobody likes Germans anyway!

Yet Belón, by all accounts, approved her family’s movie metamorphosis. She was an advisor to the film, and promoted it. She profited from it. Maybe it served her vanity to be played by Watts; I don’t know why she allowed it. Seldom will you see a more compelling justification of  Rationalization #42, The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?” One reason the criticism was muted was that it was a Spanish production. If an English or American production had turned Belón into a Brit or a native of Chicago, presumably the critical voices would have been more and louder.

My answer to this quiz is, I think, this: Belón’s kids deserved better. They deserved to have the most important crisis of their lives told without their parents allowing corporate suits to turn  them into cute little English tykes. Their life stories were made into a movie, yet nobody knows that it is their story being told. Mom and Dad okayed this for money? Yes, they had the authority. They abused their power.

It isn’t the movie that is unethical. What was unethical is parents selling their family’s amazing story and allowing a corporation to reduce  their children’s lives and identities to fiction for profit.

* Some of these complaints were of the “how dare they not make the movie I think they should have made rather than the movie they did” variety, and those criticism are unfair. Yes, the horror that befell the poor residents of the countries devastated by the tsunami deserves a film too, but “The Impossible” tells a true and dramatic story, and should not be attacked because it wasn’t about something else.


 Sources: SF WeeklyDaily Life, Mirror, Wikipedia


43 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz (Movie Division): “The Impossible,” Whitewashing, and Betrayal

  1. Spanish filmakers are a strange breed. Why they couldn’t have cast somebody like Salma Hayek to play Maria Belon is puzzling to me. This brings back memories of Charlton Heston (who I happen to have liked) playing Miguel “Mike” Vargas. a Mexican drug enforcement officer in “Tough of Evil”.

    • And tell me what actors would you cast as the husband and children, hmm?

      ….What I find puzzling is why you keep bringing up Mexicans in this: Salma Hayek is a Mexican actress, Heston in a Mexican role it’s like you keep thinking Mexican.

      Spanish people are Caucasians just FYI. They are more genetically related to British people than Mexicans, just so you know.

        • Because Spanish people are European and British people are European too, so there that connection at least. Spaniards are proud to be European believe me. ALSO they chose Brit for it’s obvious english connection to the U.S. where it could generate more viewing & money for them of course.
          It’s tough for non-english/Hollywood movie producers/filmmakers to get people to watch their films + make a nice profit especially when they spent so much (their budget was 45 million!) & fyi Spain is in an economic crisis. It comes down to $$$ so if that meant sacrificing the main character’s nationality then okay.

          Here’s the top 3 Box-Office countries
          Spain 54,536, 668 (broke even)
          UK 20,705,247 (profit)
          U.S. 19,019, 882 (profit)
          The rest is gravy, it was a global success.

          So you see they really reached their target audience on this one $$$. All the people involved Director, producers, writer, composer, cinematographer, editors, Studio were ALL Spanish and I think they intentionally cast at least one spanish actress, Marta Etura, who got first billing according to IMDb and then there’s also spanish voice actors to dub the film so they all won.

            • If you are an English racist, it’s okay, we, Spanish people, are not. Believe it or not, Spanish people are white. I have a lot of friends with blonde hair and blue/green eyes, and they are all Spanish with Spanish Familys. I am brunette, but my skin is white like a ghost, specially in winter.

              The actors in the movie need to speak English because otherwise, the movie will not succeed, it is normal turning the family into British. Although, it would not be hard finding a Spanish family who look exactly like Naomi and Ewan…

              • Incoherent comment. Did I write that Spanish people were not white? I didn’t make up the term “whitewashing” in this context, and it does not only apply to race. Did you not see THE PHOTO of the actress and who she was portraying in the post, rendering all of your commentary superfluous and irrelevant?

                Tell me, do all Spanish people have Anglo-Saxon names and only reside outside of Spain? They changed the woman and her family into non-Spanish people.

    • Salma Hayek is half Lebanese, half Mexican. Belon was Spanish. It would have been flat out offensive to cast SH. Because in Spain they are pretty tired of seeing dark skinned, Pancho Villa types filling in for Spaniards in American cinema.

  2. I agree with your analysis. Had they invented a fictionalized family that was a composite of various survivor stories, that would be one thing, but deliberately taking a single story and lying about who it happened to is repellent.

    Also: seriously, Aussie film critic? They learn that “white privelige” is no match for nature? In what possible way does white privelige come into the plot of the movie? This is why I can’t take the phrase “white privelige” seriously, because it gets thrown around as a catchall for “white people were involved in a thing I don’t like.”

  3. In historic fiction the writer is not supposed to put real historic people in situations or speaking words that are historically inaccurate. If that happens, according to selection policies, the work is rejected for inclusion in a legitimate school library collection. Historic fiction works are supposed to be historically accurate with fictional characters fitting into history not the other way around.

  4. This one doesn’t bother me as much. This is a story that is personally compelling — and could have been told with people from any region. (There are obvious reasons why they chose not to — as you pointed out above.) More importantly, this family’s story will not be taught in schools — although presumably the national disaster will. Your other film inaccuracies pointed out above are more important because they are part of the historical record.

    Look at any movie — heck, look at Frozen, Disney’s $1 Billion wonder. It is set in Norway, but the characters all speak English — because it was marketed for an English-speaking audience here and in the UK. And, Disney also released the film in dozens of countries around the world where all of the songs and dialogue are in the native dialogue. Shouldn’t this movie — any movie — have actors speak the foreign tongue with appropriate language subtitles? Will future societies 1000 years from now believe (when the only two remaining languages are Mandarin and English) that all people in non-American countries spoke upper class British and all commoners (regardless of race or national origin) speak with a Cockney accent? Unless, of course, you are a commoner from Eastern Europe, Africa, or Asia — then you have to speak the common tongue. Obviously, everyone spoke either Shakespearean English or Cockney in Ancient Rome.

    Let movies be movies — especially if they are acknowledging that they are fictional accounts that are only inspired by real life events.

  5. I’m with Beth here. Jack, I thought you had posted before about re-designing and re-casting plays, even plays which formed their own historical niches. It’s too bad that there are probably way too many people who go to movies about historical events, and come out thinking they have just been educated as to exactly what went down. I feel fortunate that I saw enough cartoons before I ever saw a full-length movie. I was unwittingly pre-educated and pre-conditioned to suspend disbelief as my going-in frame of mind. The spinoff of suspending disbelief was to presume that whatever I saw in a movie was unlike ANYTHING that really happened, or could happen.*

    *This came in especially handy when I saw John Wayne in The Alamo.

    • A favorite memory of 1976: Watching “Logan’s Run,” and laughing when the protagonist “rebel” couple escaped the dystopia-under-the-dome. The girl read epitaphs as if she had learned how to pronounce perfectly some words she had never seen before: “Be-luv-ed Huz-band…Be-luv-ed Wife…what do they mean?”

  6. No, I don’t think it is unethical.
    This sort of movie is supposed to be entertainment that makes money.
    Not teach school children about the event 20 years from now.
    It is a story *based* on actual events.
    The cast was selected, no doubt, based on who/what is popular with viewing audiences now.
    “Journalists” and “critics” need to stop making everything about race so they can get attention for being progressive and edgy – it is getting old.

    On another note, I am reminded of the film, “Enemy at The Gates”, with Jude Law and Ed Harris.
    Ed Harris plays a brutal Nazi sniper of high ranking.
    He absolutely looks the part, he is so sinister in the dress uniform and his eyes are a steely blue.
    He is Nazi evil personified.

    And then he opens his mouth and speaks American English. 😦

    I think his lines should all have been in German but if that was impossible, he could have at least been speaking English with a German accent.
    That was the difference between a fairly good movie and a brilliant movie.
    I don’t know if this choice was made because Ed Harris could not learn the German or if the producers were just afraid that your average viewer will be too damn lazy to read subtitles and avoid the film anyway.

  7. I have “The Impossible” in my Netflix queue.
    I hope we like it better than “Tsunami” which is an HBO made mini series about the event.
    That sucked lemons.

  8. I have not seen the movie, but I am inclined toward the “not unethical” category, especially if it was “based upon a true story.” While it was telling Belon’s story, it seems unimportant that artistic license was used to change it to Bennett, especially if certain parts of it were fictionalized. Titanic used fictional characters as the main storyline where the back-drop was a historical event. I had no problem with that. I do not see that as being so dissimilar to this.

    • The Titanic fictionalization was offensive, though within the framework of artistic license. I thought it was an insult to the real victims and heroes to waste time on fake ones. But “The Impossible” states that the story IS TRUE, not that’s its based ona true story. And indeed, all the details of the family’s travails appear to be accurate. The ONLY significant variation from the truth was the identities and nationality of the characters.

      “The Great Escape” is “based on a true story.” It got grief from the Brits and Canadians for the American characters played by James Garner and Steve McQueen, as the real escape did not include Americans. But all the characters were amalgams; it wasn’t like “The Impossible.”

      • ” The ONLY significant variation from the truth was the identities and nationality of the characters.”

        That’s another point where an unethical action, however minor, was taken. A very small one, calling something a “True Story” when it even has a semi-important detail off, isn’t honest, no matter how it’s rationalized.

  9. New to Ethics Alarms, but I’m just going to jump right in.

    Didn’t see the movie, but based on what’s presented here, I’d say no, it isn’t unethical.

    It’s the Belons’ story, and they can do what they want with it within reason. Selling it as dramatic fiction is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t harm anyone. They haven’t impugned or slandered or deceived anyone.

    The filmmakers’ part in this is unpleasantly oily (as usual), but still not unethical. While the casting decisions smack of distasteful cynicism (“universal” is just a code word for “appealing”), they didn’t hijack someone else’s experience or identity — they fictionalized it with that person’s participation and permission. If they gave the film the hard sell as an absolutely true story (pitching it as a documentary-style truth telling), then they’re flirting with unethical deception. Having seen neither the film nor its marketing, I can’t really judge that, but the existence of the photo up top says to me that they weren’t trying to be underhanded about their casting or the nature of the story.

    The key consideration here: this is entertainment. A true story partially fictionalized in the service of maximum drama and audience appeal. Perfectly ordinary and ethical.

    • “Perfectly ordinary” is a form of the rationalization “Everybody does it”. You’d get away with explaining this film is ethical without having to say “Everybody does it”.

    • I will say that it’s less unethical because it was done with the family’s permission, but it’s the Hilary Clinton rationalization. Just because the most direct and obvious person harmed by an unethical act says it’s OK doesn’t mind (or says they don’t, in exchange for access to money/power/etc) doesn’t make the act an ethical one. It may be the difference between legal and illegal, though.

      • I should have known I’d get dinged for “perfectly ordinary” (I read the ethical fallacies page last night). 🙂

        I don’t think noting that the family participated/approved necessarily falls afoul of the Hillary Clinton rationalization. They’re the only ones who know whether fictionalizing their identity for mass appeal has done any harm to them.

        The filmmakers, though…

        I saw in another comment that the movie was billed as a true story. There’s an important difference between “based on a true story” and “the TRUE STORY of….” Marketing their movie as the latter when the protagonists have all been fictionalized is a lie. And in that case the family and the viewing public are all victims of the lie.

  10. If the ethnicity (an already relatively artificial construct) of the character is irrelevant to the ‘moral’ or the context of the story, then it isn’t unethical.

    If the ethnicity of the character is relevant to the ‘moral’ or the context of the story, then it would be unethical.

    Simple as that.

    • Jack, to clarify, your final line identifies where there are ethical problems with this scenario. The fun part about analyzing problems, is identifying where real problems are after people get spun up about what isn’t the problem.

    • It can’t be as simple as that. Real people’s lives are affected. People own their lives, ethically if not legally. Would it be Ok to meticulously recreate the heroic landing Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III in a film in every detail other than, say, his name, gender and race?

      • When I said “context”, in the interest of brevity, I left out a further explanation that was meant to get to the point that “context” includes the ability to accurately link characters in the “story” with the real life people they are based on. In the case of Chesley Sullenberger, III, he became a known figure because of the real life event…. any movie made after that would only be confusing to cast an out of context character to represent him.

        I think that the family of “Impossible” didn’t become known until the “story” was told. In movies like that, I really appreciate when they show the actors alongside the real people.

        • On a related topic:

          I recall meeting one of Audie Murphy’s old platoon buddies in Southern Oklahoma. James Fife, a native American of Seminole descent, who everyone assumes was portrayed in the movie with a character named “Swope” with the nickname “Chief” based on his native American origin. It’s a nickname which Mr. Fife never went by. But more offensive to him was that, in the movie, his character always smoked cigars; in almost every scene he had a cigar. Mr. Fife was irritated that he was portrayed nationally as a smoker, which he detested.

          I don’t deny that a person’s life is their own, and all things being equal, I’d prefer any rendition of a person’s ‘story’ to be 100% accurate, otherwise, it’s not their “story”, just make believe given the added weight of some actual facts…

            • Email my dad…

              He’s a living compendium of personal interviews with almost every one of Audie’s family members, a large portion of Audie’s army buddies, and a few of his movie star colleagues…

                • I can’t make an informed opinion on that, I don’t know tons about Sgt York’s childhood. I do know that both of them were subsistence survivors from large families barely eking by. I know Audie never lived in a house his family owned until he bought one for his siblings after the war. For a significant portion of his childhood he lived in a tent on the farm his family share-cropped. Of course, when one person has $10 to their name and another has $20, its really a moot comparison.

                  They weren’t poor on values though… (which matters more than a hundred thousand dollars)

        • Yes, I do too. They didn’t in that film. There was no reason in the world not to use their real names and nationality. There are blonde Spaniards. The language doesn’t matter. There are also plenty of brunette actresses who would have been close enough to the real woman.

          • Judging by picture shown here their skin tone looks the same to me. It’s just the hair & eye color nothing hair dye and contacts can’t fix. BTW Naomi has dark roots showing I’m doubting she even a real blonde xP Also from what I understand Maria chose Naomi cause she’s her favorite actress.

              • Really u don’t know why? Well Spanish people are European and British people are European too, so there that connection at least. Spaniards are proud to be European believe me. ALSO they chose Brit for it’s obvious english connection to the U.S. where it could generate more viewing & money for them of course.

                • WHAT????? The Spanish characters with the actual Spanish names could still speak English, like characters of every conceivable nationality and language have been speaking in films from the beginning! Did you read the post? Did you comprehend the point of the post, or the issues involved? Who cares whether “Spaniards are proud to be European” ? What does that have to do with anything? This is a courageous SPANISH family whose story is told to the world as the story of a fictional ENGLISH family. That’s unfair to them, and Spanish pride has zero to do with anything.

                  You are not making sense, and wasting my time.

                  • Just to clarify I thought as oppose to American when you said “why British”. I thought the whole anglo angle was pretty obvious though.

  11. You completely missed the main critique, the more important critique. This film plays into the overwhelming dialogue in the media and in the minds of the majority of privileged classes: that things are only bad and serious if they happen to white people. The countless Thai people who didn’t have as happy an ending are simply the backdrop for this white family. If it weren’t part of a disturbing trend that has existed in society and art for so long, I would be happy to say “let movies be movies”, but it is not that simple. Filmmakers and writers and actors, whether they like it or not, have a responsibility other than simply making good art. They have a responsibility to use their powerful public platforms to change damaging narratives, and certainly to reject narratives that contribute to the damage.

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