Whitewashing: the dos and don’ts

By Member
Charles W-W
Is whitewashing in movies ever okay?
Gage Skidmore

Published 31st August 2017


By , Member

Whitewashing in Hollywood is a subject that comes around every year. Last year it was Marvel’s Doctor Strange and this year it was Ghost in the Shell – both films I will be examining here. The issue is raised again though with the casting news from the new Hellboy (2018) movie (starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour).

It was reported this week that actor Ed Skrein (of Deadpool fame) had stepped down from his role as Major Ben in the movie, who in the Hellboy comic is of Japanese and American heritage. On Twitter Skrein had this to say, ‘I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage… It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity’. He ended, ‘I am sad to leave Hellboy but if this decision brings us closer to that day, it is worth it’.

I want to start off by saying that it’s admirable of Skrein to do this, especially knowing not only the huge potential this film could have for his career, but also the potential financial and political repercussions. I also have to give it up one time for Skrein because turning down this role has now forced the studio’s hand in casting an appropriate actor for this role.

So let’s look at the dos and don’ts by using Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell as examples.

I may dip and dab into themes of ethnic minority opportunities in Hollywood, but this isn’t the article for me to really get into that (you may see that kind of article in the future – I mean who knows, I can’t tell the future, if I could I’d be living it up in my velvet filled mansion which I bought by winning the lottery).

Why do it?

Let’s get the negative out of the way. Ghost in the Shell, set in a slightly-dystopian future vision of Japan where robots are human-like and hackers run amok. Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead character, Major, who is Japanese in the original manga and anime. After months and months of gruelling research, me and my fellow scientists at MIT, have now concluded that Johansson is in fact a white female from New York City.

“The problem with this?” I hear you think, is why was Scarlett cast as a Japanese character? The only reason I can think of on behalf of the producers and DreamWorks is that they must of thought Scarlett is an actress that can pull in an audience – which of course is a business move. Well, as in-touch with the audience as they think they may be, they’re wrong. Less and less these days does star power have as much of an influence. So really all they accomplished was a shiny example of whitewashing at its worst.

So, with Scarlett’s so-called star power out of the way, what did she actually bring to the table that another actor couldn’t? Acting ability? I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched this film but judging on her more recent lead in Lucy and other roles in Hail Caesar and as Black Widow in Marvel, her acting is seems just fine. She would of course not be the problem as to why nobody liked the film. So, if she is just like any other actor with a pretty face, then surely there are so many more to choose from. This is where the producers messed up, choosing the wrong actor to make more money (or so they thought). I do understand that Hollywood is a business, but I’m sure a better-looking business has morals. In hindsight, the best course of action this studio should of taken would have been to hire a Japanese actor (may I present Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi…).

Creative license

Let’s finish off with a lighter casting, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. When this casting news came out there were debates and discussions from all corners of the inter-webs. But I was not so bothered about this.

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Yes, it is whitewashing but it doesn’t really mean to be – it’s not so much a cynical business strategy here, but legitimate creative license. Not only is Tilda an A* class actor but with her comes a look – she’s a cultural icon in her own right. Tilda brings with her the look of something out of this world – she is someone you can easily pick out of a crowd of people which includes a Benedict Cumberbatch or a Mads Mikkelsen. This other worldly’ness only adds to that essential mysticism that the character needs for us to believe she’s been around for a while. The same could be said about the characters Mister Doctor and Kaecilius as they also are masters of the arts.

“But Kamar-taj is set in the Himalayas and the Ancient One is the leader!” And? The academy is filled with loads of different ethnic groups – the obvious being Kaecilius, Wong, and Baron Mordo. Still, let’s play a little bit of devil’s advocate and fan cast IP Man himself Donnie Yen, whack some ageing make-up on him and make him blind in one eye – BOOM here’s your Ancient One.

Thank you for reading and if you liked this article then give us a like and a share! If you want to talk about ethnic casting in movies then hit me up on Twitter @charliewarnerw. If you think I’m completely wrong and believe that only American white people should play all roles including a lead role in a documentary about Malcom X then complain about it on Beebo!

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