• Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio is the top pick to play Sufi poet and Muslim scholar Rumi in a new film. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The filmmakers say the movie will give the Persian scholar "a face" - a white face is their top pick.
Alyssa Braithwaite

8 Jun 2016 - 12:16 PM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2016 - 12:16 PM

An Oscar-winning screenwriter has been accused of whitewashing after saying he would like to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as 13th Century Sufi poet and Muslim scholar Rumi.

David Franzoni, who wrote the script for the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator, and producer Stephen Joel Brown say they want to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in Hollywood by making a movie about the life and times of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who is Persian and was born in what is now Afghanistan.

"He's like 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," Franzoni told The Guardian.

"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."

They hope to start shooting the biopic next year, and said while it was too early to begin casting the movie, they would like to see DiCaprio in the starring role as Rumi, and Robert Downey Jr to play his mentor Shams of Tabriz, an Iranian Muslim.

"This is the level of casting that we're talking about," said Brown, chief executive of Y Productions, who was also a producer on films such as Se7en, The Fugitive and Outbreak.

Their comments have sparked outrage on social media, with the hashtag #RumiWasn'tWhite trending on Twitter.

Many noted that the news broke on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. 

Neither DiCaprio nor Downey Jr have responded to the reports, but it is believed that they are not actually attached to the film.

This is the latest controversy over whitewashing characters in Hollywood films.

Franzoni's Gladiator director Ridley Scott has been accused of whitewashing Middle Eastern characters in his 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Asian characters in his 2015 film The Martian.  

Film maker and critic Imran Siddiquee took to Twitter to share his thoughts on #RumiWasn'tWhite:

"It’s not just about DiCaprio or RDJ being cast, they may or may not be, it’s that the men in charge of the film think this is a great idea. These are the men who have the funding and support to make a major Hollywood film about Rumi. And they think DiCaprio is the best choice. The idea that Leo DiCaprio is the best actor in the world for every part ever in history is all about worshipping whiteness. This is what we mean when we say that centering whiteness in your story is a choice – it always carries a meaning."


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