Recent Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio has played his fair share of controversial characters – including a sadistic slave owner in Django Unchained and a misogynistic criminal stockbroker in The Wolf of Wall Street – but the Internet is furious at the thought of him portraying the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.
Posting under #RumiWasntWhite, one user tweeted, “Omg I thought people were joking about the casting in this film.” Another tweeted, “White people ruin Ramadan 2016 by announcing their ‘Rumi’ movie.” A third tweeted “Oh nonononon nooooooooooooooooooo,” then followed it in all capital letters with “HOLLYWOOD YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR.”
Though the backlash is flooding Twitter like Kanye West fans outside Webster Hall, it’s important to note that DiCaprio has not yet been cast as the poet. In a recent interview with the Guardian, David Franzoni, who won an Oscar for writing Gladiator, announced he would be working on the upcoming biopic about Rumi.
The piece states that the two hope to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Muslim characters – who often appear as terrorists, belly dancers or desert-dwellers – in Hollywood.
“There are a lot of reasons we’re making a product like this right now,” Franzoni said. “I think it’s a world that needs to be spoken to; Rumi is hugely popular in the United States. I think it gives him a face and a story.”
But when asked who, exactly, would give the poet a face, Franzoni and producer Stephen Joel Brown said they hope it’s DiCaprio. To make matters worse, they also said they’d like Robert Downey Jr. to star as Shams of Tabriz, the Iranian Muslim who served as Rumi’s spiritual adviser and possible lover.
Rumi was a Sufi – a discipline of Islam – master who was born in what would become modern-day Afghanistan. He spent much of his life traveling around the area before being buried in what would be modern-day Turkey. In 1244, during his travels, he met a wandering mystic called Shams of Tabriz.
“Rumi was 37, a traditional Muslim preacher and scholar, as his father and grandfather had been,” Brad Gooch, who is writing a biography about Rumi, told the BBC in 2014. “The two of them have this electric friendship for three years – lover and beloved (or) disciple and sheikh, it’s never clear.”
During that time, Rumi became a mystic himself. After Shams of Tabriz mysteriously disappeared, Rumi began writing poetry, mostly in Persian, that would still be popular 800 years later. The lines were filled with reflections on love and the spiritual world.
“Whatever you say, good or bad, it will echo it back to you Don’t say I sang nicely and mountain echoed an ugly voice … That is not possible
“The human intellect is a place where hesitation and uncertainty take root
“There is no way to overcome this hesitation … except by falling in love
“To reach the sea and be happy with a jug water is a waste
“The sea that has pearls …
“And a hundred thousand other precious things.”
“Most of the poetry we have comes from age 37 to 67,” Gooch said. “He wrote 3,000 (love songs) to Shams, the prophet Muhammad and God.”
“Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive,” Lee Briccetti, executive director of Poets House, told the BBC. “And they help us understand our own search for love and the ecstatic in the coil of daily life.”
Though as recently as 2014, Rumi was the bestselling poet in the United States, he was no Westerner. Many don’t think he should be portrayed by one (to say nothing of Downey Jr. portraying his teacher and potential lover).
To some, it’s yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing.
In particular, it’s another example of Hollywood whitewashing characters who are Middle Eastern. In 2010, there was outcry over Jake Gyllenhaal playing the titular character in Prince of Persia. In 2014, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a movie in which Christian Bale played Moses and Joel Edgerton portrays Ramses, was widely panned for, well, the fact that Bale played Moses and Edgerton played Ramses. The film’s historical inaccuracies enraged some so deeply, it was banned in both Egypt and Morocco, the BBC reported.
The entire fiasco essentially repeated itself a year later when the promos for February’s Gods of Egypt – which stars Gerard Butler as Set, Brenton Thwaites as Bek, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Horus, Geoffrey Rush as Ra and Chadwick Boseman as Thoth – first appeared.
It remains to be seen if DiCaprio will take on the role of Rumi in search of his second Oscar, but if Twitter is any indication, the poet’s fans would be none too pleased.