A WSJ critic thought Kal Penn and Dev Patel were the same person. Nope.
The belief that people who share the same racial background all look the same is a classic bit of passive racism. Even America’s most prestigious news outlets aren’t immune, as readers learned when The Wall Street Journal confused Dev Patel with Kal Penn. In his review of the movie Lion, starring Patel, WSJ movie critic Joe Morgenstern wrote that the lead character “is played dazzlingly by Dev Patel, who gives his richest performance since The Namesake,” the 2006 film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about a Bengali family living in the United States. High praise — except it was Penn, not Patel, who appeared in The Namesake. Oops.
Twitter was quick to call out the screwup, asking Morgenstern questions such as, “Did you mean the other brown actor (@kalpenn) or other brown film?” Morgenstern, to his partial credit, described the mistake as “a dumb error,” but, quite frankly, it’s so much worse than that.
Confusing the two actors is beyond inept, especially for a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic like Morgenstern. For one thing, there are 13 years and the entire Atlantic Ocean between them; Penn is 39 and American, while Patel is 26 and British. They also got their big breaks playing wildly different roles in different media, with Penn rising to prominence in the amazing stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Patel getting a small-screen start in the British teen drama series Skins. From a less objective point of view, Penn is this kind of handsome:
And Patel is this kind of handsome:
See? Not the same at all, although you may want to examine these visual aids very closely. You know, for accuracy.
If a prize-winning film critic at one of the country’s major newspapers can’t distinguish between actors from different countries and with different career trajectories who don’t look alike in the slightest, we as a society are not doing great. What makes this even worse is the failure of the WSJ’s editorial staff with regard to Morgenstern’s error. Sure, he’s responsible for what he wrote, but an editor should have caught it before it went to print. In an age where IMDB exists, there’s no excuse for confusing one Indian-descended actor with another, especially since mainstream TV and film still have so few actors of South Asian descent.
Even at the highest levels of news reporting, racism is alive and well. That’s why Morgenstern’s accidental substitution was so much more than a “dumb error.” It was another reminder in an already endless list of how white media gatekeepers see actors of color as a single mass, rather than valuing them as individuals.