White washing in cinema

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    Though I wish it were otherwise, this is in fact a political topic.

    As an unabashed film nerd, I likely see thirty or more films a year at the theater and untold numbers of others at home via premium cable channels, Net-Flix, Amazon Prime, or other services. While I probably have too many “favorite” movies to even begin to list, and they span almost every genre and era, I definitely have an affinity for science fiction and fantasy.

    Which brings me to an interesting bit of negative media scrutiny both Marvel Studios and Paramount are facing in recent days due to some casting decisions. Last week Disney/Marvel released the first trailer for their upcoming film “Dr. Strange” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. And Paramount released their first image of Scarlet Johansson as the lead character in their upcoming live action adaptation of the popular Japanese anime “Ghost in the Shell”.

    In the former, Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is taught the mystical arts and sorceress incantations from a character named “The Ancient One”. In the comics that character is, appropriately enough, A Tibetan wise man. In the film, The Ancient One is played by (white) British actress Tilda Swinton. In the latter example, the main character played by Scar-Jo is named Major Motoko Kusanagi. As you may have surmised, in the anime her character is Japanese. (Or at the least a cyborg/robotic “shell” her character’s conscientiousness inhabits; that is based upon Japanese archetypes. The entire story is set in a futuristic version of Tokyo.)

    Here’s a good story/conversation about the controversy: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/doc-strange-whitewashing-shell-884385

    My opinions on this are somewhat difficult to coalesce and may even seem contrary at times. In some instances I have no problem at all with a casting choice being a different age, sex, or even race from that of the source material. A few examples off the top of my head:

    • In the re-imagining, re-boot of Battlestar Galactica the formerly very male character “Starbuck” was cast as an ass-kicking female pilot.
    • In the Thor films (also Marvel Studios) the watcher/guardian of The Birforst (The Rainbow Bridge to Asguard) is Heimdall. He’s based upon the Norse god of the same name and is played by Idris Elba.
    • In both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman (both of which are epically terrible by the way, and deserving of their own hate-thread), Perry White is played by Laurence Fishburne.
    • In Tim Burton’s Batman film from 1989, Harvey Dent was played by Billy Dee Williams.
    • Ellen Ripley’s character from the Alien films was originally a man in the screenplays.

    In others instances, I think the changes are very bothersome/troublesome.

    • I’m very put off both by the Scar-Jo casting as well as that of Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange.
    • I found the metaphorical (red) sea of white faces hugely distracting in Ridely Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”. Who knew ancient Egypt looked so pasty?
    • In the somewhat recent (and also terrible) Star Trek: Into Darkness the previously mentioned Mr. Cumberbatch played a character named Khan Noonien Sing. Khan is Indian. He was, memorably but also racially insensitively, played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbahn in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
    • In last summer’s terrible rom-com “Aloha”, big eyed and very pale Emma Stone was cast as a character meant to be a native Hawaiian islander named Alison Ng.
    • In the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”, the character Roland of Gilead will be played by Idris Elba. In the novels, Roland is white. The only reason this one matters at all to me is that Roland’s race becomes a central issue/point of conflict with another character in the story named Detta Walker. With Roland now being the same race as Detta, I can only assume they’ve either vastly changed or completely excised this important plot point from the novels for their film adaption. As a fan of the novels I can’t say I’m thrilled by either eventuality. Otherwise, the casting choice would be (IMO) irrelevant.
    • To say nothing of the innumerable (and often really disturbing) instances going back decades where white actors were cast as everything from Asian to Arab to African-American rather than actors of the appropriate race. If you’ve never seen Mickey Rooney in yellow-face portraying a Japanese landlord in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, count yourself fortunate.

    For me, I think it comes down to a simple question: Does the character’s race or sex play a prominent or determinant role in that character’s personality or story arc?

    In the former examples I would argue that it doesn’t. In the latter, I would argue they do.

    I think Scarlett Johannsson is a better actress than she often gets credit for, but I’m not really interested in seeing her play a character named Motoko Kusanagi. It’s just weird/wrong. Ghost in the Shell is a very Japanese story in every way. And while Tilda Swinson is a terrific and critically acclaimed actress, really Marvel Studios? The Ancient One, ensconced in a monastery high in the mountains of Tibet where he has been learning and mastering the mystical arts for hundreds of years needed to be re-cast as a British women?

    Financially speaking, I understand a studio’s reluctance to cast unknown race appropriate actors into prominent roles in tent pole films that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market. I.e. They’re looking for a safe bet. Due to her profile from the Marvel properties, Scarlett Johansson is a much more bankable star than say someone like Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim), whom I would have (and did) argued was perfect for this role prior to Scar-Jo’s casting announcement. That, the money/financing argument, was the same reason Ridley Scott also gave for not casting race appropriate actors into Exodus. The interview is actually pretty funny; he throws the studio right under the bus and said he was forced to cast white people like Christian Bale to get the financing he needed to make the picture. He clearly wished it had been otherwise.

    What does it all mean? What do we do or don’t do about it? That’s obviously a lot harder to say. I think talking about it and calling more attention to the matter is always a good first step. Though likely the only thing that will really make any difference at all to the studios is the bottom line.

    “Aloha” flopped for number of reasons, but the vast (and continual) negative publicly generated by the Emma Stone casting decision absolutely played a role.

    And this science fiction fan is giving serious thought to not seeing “Ghost in the Shell” when it eventually reaches theatres. I say that as someone who’s been a fan since it first came out in 1989. Sometimes all you can do is vote with your wallet.

    What say you?


    Talking about it is a very good thing. I may vote with my feet too, depending.

    Mostly, I’m in strong agreement. Gender is rarely an issue and sometimes we find the material is improved by a given take on a character.

    You mentioned “Starbuck” and I thought she did a great job with that role. Recommended.

    I really can’t stand the hot person with often contrived accent… I am extremely likely to vote in the negative, when I learn that has been done again.

    In general, Scifi and fantasy are the last genres we should see this kind of trouble in. Maybe dumbing those down too much for broad appeal is the wrong thing to do.


    I wish I had time to watch more movies. However, on a recent flight to and from Maui, I watched 4 movies! Creed, 42, Vacation, and The Martian. I passed on the new Star Wars 4 times.


    Did you like the Martian?


    Yes, The Martian was good, although unrealistic.

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