It was announced earlier this year that Scarlett Johansson would play in the live-action adaptation of manga Ghost in the Shell and she’s rumoured to play protagonist Motoko Kusanagi. What’s wrong with this picture? The story is Japanese and its characters are Japanese. Scarlett Johansson obviously isn’t. Why was she cast? Are they going to create an original character for her? Or “Westernise” Ghost in the Shell? It wouldn’t be the first time.
It seems that the film industry still have an issue with casting non-white actors in… non-white roles. Despite vehement responses from the crowd, casting directors and producers refuse to listen and the chosen actors have to (poorly) defend themselves.
Whitewashing isn’t new and remains one of the biggest issues the industry faces today. It’s understandable… you know, if the year is 1955 and we consider blackface and yellowface (Blacks and Asians portrayed by white actors) as still acceptable. However, it’s 2015, and we don’t. While there’s some improvement on portrayals, non-white actors still tend to portray their race and culture negatively or with “positive” stereotypes. Non-white lead roles are still mainly given to those who don’t even represent the people and culture in question.
“It’s just acting,” is one among the weak excuses for whitewashing. Apparently the media has no influence on people and historical fiction doesn’t mirror or influence reality. Hmm.
With the tradition of casting white leads in obviously non-white roles, where does that leave those actors and actresses who are right for the roles? Opportunities for lead roles are already rare for them. The majority usually end up being pushed to the side in supporting and minor parts.
“Hollywood continues to operate under the assumption that white characters have the widest appeal,” explains Amanda Scherker of Huffington Post. Interestingly, several black and Asian actors in the 1940s-50s moved to Europe for better representation and opportunities, and to escape racism.” So does that still apply today? Is it just whoever’s at the top in Hollywood the problem?
National Director of the Screen Writers’ Guild, David White says:
“Unfortunately, the industry is driven by a group of risk-averse decision-makers who continually make inaccurate assumptions about the abilities of people of color and storylines about their communities, and this persists generationally.”
People have argued that a work is either “just fiction” or “has to be historically accurate”. In their minds, they think that Western countries were mainly white in the past. Despite evidence of multiracial/cultural societies (as far back as the Middle Ages), the only times you see a non-white character in historical films (or any film set in the past) is apparently in stories centring on slavery, racism, imperialism and colonisation.
Exodus: Gods and Kings received backlash with an all-white main cast playing Egyptian characters. Yes, there were Europeans in ancient Egypt during the period Moses’ story is set… centuries before the self-sufficient land was conquered by foreigners. Historically accurate indeed [slow clapping]. African and other non-white actors play minor roles including servants and thieves, when they could’ve (and should’ve) been playing Moses, the Pharaoh and the rest of the royals.
Ridley Scott explained that he couldn’t have a “Mohammed so-and-so” as the lead. Very disrespectful, Scott. It’s not even a solid justification either. Do these film companies even know their audience? Exodus: Gods and Kings got on people’s nerves so much that the hashtag “BoycottExodusMovie” came into existence. The film ended up a commercial failure.
It’s proven whitewashing main characters in Asian-originated works doesn’t work. Take The Last Airbender and Dragonball Z for example. Both films received negative reviews and didn’t perform well. And of course fans of the franchises called out on the casting. The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp as a Native American flopped as well. On the flip side, there have been several films led by the minority, including Independence Day and the Rush Hour trilogy, both commercially successful.
According to a study done by UCLA in 2014, more diverse casts in film is key to higher box office performances and ratings. It seems that Hollywood didn’t get that message.
In the world of television, diversity has more room to grow with several lead roles being taken on by non-white actors: like Viola Davis of How to Get Away with Murder fame. Cassandra Clare, the author of the book series which upcoming fantasy series Shadowhunters is based on has stressed on the importance of diversity, and one of her conditions is that one of her main characters must not be whitewashed. The crew will have to cast an actor of the right ethnic background. Rare, since an author usually doesn’t have much of a say on the adaptation of their work.
There’s also talk on having a more diverse cast for Agent Carter and the audience are strongly supporting this. Some have said that the past is no excuse for erasing races other than white, even if the story is fantasy.
If they cast a white actor as the lead or have an all-white cast for Ghost in the Shell, then they would miss an opportunity for change and remain stuck in the past. It would be unfortunate for the audience who want to see Asians and other races as human and heroes.