Hollywood’s Whitewashing problem

Marvel Studios has recently come under fire for its casting choices following the release of the first trailer for its upcoming adaptation of Doctor Strange.

The Ancient One, mentor to Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular sorcerer, is played by Tilda Swinton, despite the fact that the character in the comics is an Asian male. This has unsurprisingly attracted some controversy, and it isn’t hard to see why. Once again, Hollywood has recast a traditionally ethnic role with a white actor. This being said, the controversy is perhaps unjustly levelled at Marvel here.

The Ancient One is very problematic as a character to begin with, another entry in the trope of the wise, old and mystical Asian mentor figure. Casting an Asian actor in a thoroughly stereotypically role may well have caused even more controversy and accusations of insensitivity than Marvel’s solution has. And as potential workarounds to the problem go, the casting of Swinton seems a fairly good idea. She is an immensely talented actress, and is as far as I’m concerned the perfect choice for an inevitable Bowie biopic, and whilst the character has been whitewashed, in its place we have an interpretation that challenges preconceptions of gender. I’d take Swinton as an androgynous, all powerful wizard over an oriental sensei caricature any day.

Whilst Swinton may work as an alternative, the “problem” faced by Doctor Strange needn’t necessarily be a problem at all. The “solution” lies in good writing. The Peter Parker of The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t fail because of Andrew Garfield’s performance, but because the writers fundamentally misunderstood the character and his motivations. Just because the Ancient One of the comics is a dreadful stereotype, there’s no reason the cinematic version needs to be as well, so long as it is sensitively written and a capable actor found to fill the role, and there is certainly no shortage of talented Asian actors out there.

This is not the first time that Marvel has landed itself in hot water over issues of diversities. The recent announcement that Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones was to lead Netflix’s Iron Fist series was equally met with its fair share of negative criticism. Not because of issues of racism, as Iron Fist’s alter-ego Danny Rand is actually a white male in the comics. No, controversy arose here because it was seen as a missed opportunity. Here, the character could have been redrawn in such a way as to honour the series’ roots in the 1970s martial-arts boom, but in a more intelligent way.

Rand’s heroic journey is based in part on his outsider status; he becomes immersed in an alien culture, and trains himself in its arts. Now, think how much more interesting this narrative would be with an Asian-American actor in the role. Instead of an uncomfortable tale of a privileged white male becoming the saviour of an ancient Asian community, it instead becomes the story of man rediscovering his heritage after a few generations of Americanisation.

However, a film that has attracted even greater accusations of whitewashing is DreamWorks’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Based on the intensely popular Japanese manga and anime series, the upcoming film has outraged fans in its casting of Scarlet Johansson as the lead. It is not simply the casting of a white actor that has ruffled feathers, but suggestions that the studio had done tests with CGI so as to make whit actors look more ethnically Asian.

Had DreamWorks totally transplanted Ghost in the Shell into an American cultural context, it no doubt still would have disappointed fans of the original, but would not have caused the same media storm that it has. The film’s picking and choosing looks as though it will leave the finished product looking rather culturally Frankensteinian , with the white Johansson in the lead role, but with Asian actors in supporting turns. It also remains unclear if Johansson’s character will retain her original Japanese name.

The negative reaction that Ghost in the Shell has attracted is symptomatic of a greater issue in Hollywood, which is the belief that actors of colour cannot lead blockbuster films. Ridley Scott addressed the issue after he was criticised of whitewashing in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, saying that he would be unable to finance the film with “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” in the lead role.

And Scott has a point. There is a depressing lack of mainstream, big budget film’s staring ethnic actors. Will Smith, at one time the biggest movie star in the world, is now unable to open a film on the strength of his name alone. Whilst it’s all very well and good recognising that this is a problem, recognition is not a solution. And solution will not be found unless non-white actors are given the opportunity to headline blockbusters.

Hollywood seems far more willing to take chances casting unknown and untested white actors in these kinds of leading roles. Take Chris Pratt, for example. Known largely for supporting turns in comedies, he is now well on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars after headlining the hugely successful Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World.

Achieving this kind of A-List status is even harder for Asian actors. Hollywood was far more willing to take a chance on testing the leading man credibility black actor like Michael B. Jordan than it does Asian actors. This is not to discredit Jordan at all; he’s a spectacularly talented actor with a real, old-fashioned Hollywood leading man swagger.

But the fact that companies like Marvel have been attracting controversy over the casting of Asian roles speaks volumes. Despite the Academy needing to be on its toes after amassing criticism for the second year running for its failure to nominate a single actor of colour in any category, it still allowed host Chris Rock to make a tasteless joke about Asian children, undoing some of their good work in picking a non-white host.

Hollywood doesn’t have a casting problem however. It has an attitude problem. And this problem won’t be solved until the studio big cheeses become more willing to cast non-white actors in leading roles. After all, stars don’t appear out of thin air; they have to be forged.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/athrasher

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Patrick Simpson

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