The accusation of whitewashing runs rife through recent movies in Hollywood. The odor remains, as if a small animal had crawled into an unreachable space behind the radiator and died. It will not go away.
Roles in Ghost in the Shell and Dr Strange are the latest to fire the ire of media commentators. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the former, a character depicted as a Japanese law enforcement officer in the manga series. Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One, who is shown as a Tibetan man in the Marvel comics.
There are 76 movies accused of whitewashing listed on Wikipedia, many of which are from the last five years. 'Blacking up' and 'yellow face', white people dressing up as ethnic minorities, died out in the mid-20th century. Why does this kind of practice continue to happen in movies today?
In the case of Dr Strange, the creators of the movie have blamed the case on it being in an effort to appease Chinese markets. The Marvel boss Kevin Feige spoke to Deadline on the issue. He said:
We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on ‘Doctor Strange’, for creative reasons and not political reasons. The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more.
According to Marvel, The Ancient One is a 500-year-old man born in Himalayan village called Kamar-Taj in an area now known as Tibet.
Tilda Swinton: Very great reasons
Tilda Swinton herself spoke out on the issue, saying it had never been a consideration for her because the script she received made no mention of the character being Asian. She told Den of Geek:
The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It all will be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.
Marvel: A name passed through time
Marvel furthered her comment with an official statement made to Mashable:
Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.
The only non-white character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The claim that The Ancient One is a moniker seems to contradict the origins of the character purported on the Marvel website.
Robert Cargill: You have no idea what the fuck you're talking about
Perhaps the most insightful comment on the reason why The Ancient One was cast as the Anglo-Scottish actress and not someone of Asian descent was given by the scriptwriter Robert Cargill. He said to Korey Coleman:
There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable... I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one...
If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.
Listen to the clip here from 1:38:00:
Cargill's comment pinpoints a key issue with whitewashing: the choice to change the race of a character is often said by those in the industry to be business-minded.
Furthermore, the increasing importance of China to the film market means Hollywood are becoming more and more cautious to fit their ideals. China claims that Tibet has been a part of it for over seven centuries. Tibetan exiles and most of the world believe the country was more or less independent until 1951. Cargill's logic is that an Asian actor — regardless from what country — could have been Tibetan, even born 500 years ago, and therefore potentially displeasing to China.
The Chinese government only allows a limited number of Hollywood films into its market. In 2014 the Beijing Independent Film Festival was shut down. Any that offend the ruling Communist Party may not be permitted to show on their 12,000 screens, says the Japan Times.
This seems excessively cautious. As Swinton said, there was nothing in the script to give audiences any implication of any kind of Asian heritage, Tibetan or otherwise. But they have the second-largest movie market in the world. Ant-Man made $100 million from its cinemas. But R-rated Deadpool did not make a cent, as it was banned in China.
China banning Dr Strange on the basis of an Tibetan character's unmentioned origins is unlikely. But there are hundreds of millions of dollars in the balance.
Scott Derrickson: I am listening and learning
Director Scott Derrickson was the only one to directly acknowledge the upset caused by what many see as whitewashing. He answered the backlash from Asian Americans in a simple Tweet.
Ghost in the Shell
The release of pictures of Scarlet Johansson dressed as Major Kusangi last month in Ghost in the Shell triggered a violent backlash from the online community against her casting. Over 100,000 have signed an anti-whitewashing petition. Paramount were accused not just of whitewashing, but of the erasure of one of the core themes. The Japanese elements of the story are pivotal to the plot — commentators such as Jon Tsuei considered making Kusangi white as fundamentally changing her story.
The publisher of the original Ghost in the Shell comics, Kodansha, had an interesting comment on the matter. The director of the company's international business division Sam Yoshiba told the Hollywood Reporter:
Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.
Some felt her physical identity wasn't important, because as a white lead actress Johansson could be thought of as having an artificial body. The more important issue is the nature of identity and cyborgs. But the question persists, would it have been so hard to cast an Asian actress?
Yes. According to American screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra) it would not have been possible to get the film made if Paramount had used an Asian actress because there aren't any Asian actresses big enough for Hollywood to rely on.
Watch the video:
30-year-old Landis says:
The only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works. You should be mad but you’re mad at the wrong people, if you’re mad at the studio or the director or the actress or the film industry, because what’s broken is cultural and has little to do with that.
Landis claims that there are only a few A-list celebrities now. These include two black men, Denzel Washington and Will Smith. The five women are all white.
There used to a bunch of A list celebrities. Now there are only like 10 or 15 men who get movies made. Two are black, Denzel [Washington] and Will Smith, the rest are white. There are five women who can get your movie made. One is Scarlet Johansson. All are white.
There are no A-list Asian female celebrities right now on an international level. It’s infuriating. There used to be diversity in our A-list actors. Jackie Chan and Jet Li were famous at the same time… We don’t have Lucy Liu anymore. That’s not the fault of the movie industry, that’s culture, and it’s movies getting more and more afraid because movies make less and less money even thought the huge movies make more money than ever the little movies don’t make as much.
The writer concludes by saying that the issue is not that the studio did not choose an Asian person, it's that the industry believes there is no one of Asian heritage who would have the same pulling power as Johansson.
Landis' blaming of alleged whitewashing on "culture" is vague to say the least. What culture? In the studio, in Hollywood, America or the whole world? What kind of culture? Is that just another word for racism? However, Landis does pinpoint an issue that crops up repeatedly — that studios feel less "afraid" when they use white actors.
Of course, it is possible to make as much and more money with a lesser-known actor like Rinko Kikuchi. The ugly fact remains that there aren't any Asian actresses Hollywood feels comfortable with putting in a role deemed as risky as Ghost in the Shell apparently is.
This is, however, a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' — without Hollywood putting actresses like Kikuchi in roles like Major Kusangi there will probably never be any as marketable as Johansson.
Do films need white leads to make money?
This is the sickening question forced by the continuous whitewashing debacles. It's difficult to see how the provocation of the question does not imply the choices made in Hollywood are saturated with institutional racism.
Numerous leading figures have addressed the issue head-on. The constant argument, like the ones above, is that the best actor was chosen for the role.
Psychology Professor Jeffery Mio told the BBC:
A lot of times ethnic actors will tell us that when they say we’re just choosing the best actor, they mean we’re choosing our friends, or people we’re used to.
The Hollywood Diversity Report released this year, analysing data from 2014, showed that, contrary to the statement made by Landis, films with relatively diverse casts actually enjoyed the highest media global box office receipts, as well as the highest median return on investment.
So you don't need a white cast to procure investors or ticket sales.
The report also showed that minorities were responsible for buying the majority for ticket sales of four of the top 10 films of 2014. So even if all the white people in America preferred seeing a white cast, which is absurd, they don't buy the most tickets anyway for two in five movies anyway.
The issue has been addressed directly by some filmmakers. Producer Gavin Polone wrote in New York Magazine (via HuffPo):
African-American actors don’t sell overseas — unless, of course, they are Will Smith or Denzel Washington, but only in a thriller or action movie. I have on more than one occasion been told that a studio wouldn’t approve a black lead in one of my films because it would bring down the international numbers.
He wasn't the only one. Director Ridley Scott Said on the casting of his 2014 Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, where Christian Bale performed in a drama set in the Middle East:
I can't mount a film of this budget... and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such... I'm just not going to get financed.
David White, national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild told B.Couleur Magazine in 2011 that many studios wrongly assume white casts have an international appeal. In another interview with the BBC he said it was illegal to discriminate according to race. However, there are not enough diverse roles available anyway. Tell that to critics of Ghost in the Shell or Dr Strange.
Hollywood has the power to make ethnic minorities famous. They won't do this because non-white actors are not deemed as bankable. Films need to make money. A relative risk needs to be taken by Hollywood in employing actors who aren't as famous as others for lead roles. Who knows, it might even make some money.