It’s getting harder and harder for Hollywood to ignore accusations of whitewashing Asian and other minority roles.
Scarlett Johansson as the Avengers' Black Widow
This January, eminently billable bombshell Scarlett Johansson signed on to star in an upcoming adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and for a moment nerds across America rejoiced. A Japanese franchise launched in 1989, Ghost in the Shell explores heady issues of identity and control in a techno-enhanced future through the character of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a human consciousness in an android body who fights crime in Tokyo. The franchise gained a small but loyal American fan base (including the Wachowski siblings) when the series’ first movie made it into US theatres in 1995, and for a time, fans were satisfied with dubs of Japanese manga, anime, and movies in the franchise. But in 2008 Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks acquired the rights to remake the classic series, piquing hopes nationwide for a blockbuster that would coax Americans aboard the cyber-dystopian party train. Ever since, we’ve waited for years as the project languished in development hell—until Johansson’s involvement finally kickstarted the long-awaited project, revving it into production starting next January or February for a projected April 2017 release date.
After such a long and eager wait, it’s easy to understand why, for a split second, all of us who love the original movie got excited. But for many, the joy soured quickly to a tired and jaded despair as everyone realized that Johansson’s casting, while a major catalyst moving the remake forward, was yet another example in a long tradition of Hollywood whitewashing foreign characters. Usually, such realizations just lead to grumblings on select corners of the internet. But for loyal fans of Ghost in the Shell, a series whose plots and themes are deeply inured in questions of identity and a Japanese cultural and historical context, this was a step too far. Within a month, a fan named Julie Rodriguez had organized a petition urging Dreamworks to replace Johansson in the remake, which has since drawn tens of thousands of signatories, a wide swath of social media support, and mass media commentary. It’s a rush of attention that has once again brought whitewashing front and center, and poses a serious question as to whether big studios can respond to widespread outrage over major social concerns.
The fact that whitewashing doesn’t come up more often in major discussions of Hollywood is sad and reflective of a certain industry complacency, given how old and entrenched the problem is. All the way back in 1915, at the dawn of America’s feature film industry, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation saw fit to portray a number of white actors in blackface. Over the years, the blatant offensiveness of race-bending characters slowly faded, but the practice held strong. Just last year, Exodus: Gods and Kings drew heavy scorn for using an almost all-Caucasian cast to portray explicitly Middle Eastern and North African characters, despite the existence of many qualified actors and actresses who better fit the setting of the movie.
Anna May Wong
Asian characters alone have faced a shocking amount of whitewashing throughout film history. Back in 1935, the film version of The Good Earth, a tale of a Chinese village before World War I, didn’t even consider the first major Chinese-American actress—the eternally-typecast Anna May Wong—for the lead role of O-Lan, giving it instead to the German actress Luise Rainer. Throughout the mid-1900s, studio executives decided to have John Wayne play Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Marlon Brando play a Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon, and Mickey Rooney play a Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—all very irksome and troubling portrayals. And even today, amongst a host of questionable recent castings, Marvel (of all brands) decided to cast Tilda Swinton as Tibetan character “The Ancient One” in their 2016 adaptation of Dr. Strange. That’s part-and-parcel with a trend found in a study from 2013 (cited by the Ghost in the Shell petitioners), which showed that only 4.4 percent of all speaking roles in top-grossing Hollywood films go to Asian people—a number even more dire than the mere 10.5 percent of lead Hollywood roles that go to minority actors in general.
Ever since this practice began to raise hackles, Hollywood executives and directors alike have defended it on financial grounds, arguing that some movies are so costly to produce that they need the allure of established stars to draw a crowd. Most billable actors fit for a given role, they argue, happen to be of one race or another. Speculation goes that Johansson’s star power was the only thing Spielberg and company could use to drag their project out of development hell and into production. Plus, executives assert, for many roles that aren’t explicitly about racial conflict or issues, casting across ethnicities in one direction or another shouldn’t matter. After all, they made Idris Elba a Nordic deity in the Thor franchise, and the only people calling foul on that race-bending move were flaming, vitriolic racists.
In the case of Johansson, defenders of the casting have been able to launch an especially strong case for her taking a lead role based on the actress’s cinematic trajectory of late. In the Marvel Universe and in 2014’s (dreadful) Lucy, she showed an aptitude for high-octane sci-fi action, which the intensely choreographed superhuman battles of Ghost in the Shell would require. And in 2013’s Her, she demonstrated the uncanny ability to bring humanity to a machine via minimalist expressions and emotions befitting a cyborg character grappling with her own technological existence.
Rinko Kikuchi. Image by Marco Albanese via Wikimedia Commons
Yet the studio argument about profits just doesn’t hold water like it used to. America is not lacking for highly recognized and high-grossing Asian and Asian-American stars these days, like Daniel Dae Kim, Jackie Chan, John Cho, and Ken Watanabe on the male side and Gong Li, Maggie Q, Ming-Na Wen, Sandra Oh, and Ziyi Zhang on the female side. Ghost in the Shell fans have pushed Lucy Liu of popular Kill Bill ass-kickery, and Chiaki Kuriyama, the less-known terror of Battle Royale and Kill Bill (in which Kuriyama played Liu’s henchwoman, Gogo Yubari) as potential replacements for Johansson. But fans eager to replace the American actress seem especially fond of Rinko Kikuchi, who became the first Japanese woman nominated for an Oscar in 57 years for her work in Babel. Kikuchi also proved her ability to draw crowds to a financially successful (if critically underwhelming) sci-fi franchise as Mako Mori in 2013’s Pacific Rim, a movie that generally proved you could make a multicultural, international cast into a financial success. Kikuchi’s Mori was also an unusually nuanced “tough female character,” putting her on par with whatever performance and action chops Johansson can bring to Ghost in the Shell as an actress.
Arguments that one could easily recast the race of the characters in Ghost in the Shell don’t fly either, given the themes of the source material. The franchise is rooted in Japan’s post-WWII experience, seeded with notions of the nation’s resistance to American imperialism in a dystopic future, and entirely based in questions of identity that make this racial shift especially ironic. Within this context, casting Johansson, who has recently been embroiled in disputes over her role as spokesperson for Israeli firm SodaStream (a company implicated in controversial activities in the West Bank), and whose character in Lucy was blatantly dehumanizing towards disposable Asian characters (cast more like setting than people), seems particularly tone deaf, stoking special levels of fan anger and disappointment.
Some have pointed out that we’re not sure that Johansson will be playing lead Motoko Kusanagi at all. The creative team may choose to drastically alter the story of Ghost in the Shell, perhaps shifting the setting to America (as was done in 2014’s Godzilla) and refocusing away from the Japanese cultural undertones and themes. That, you could argue, would be disappointing, but possibly not as offensive.
Ghost in Shell movie poster
Unfortunately, this would just put Dreamworks into a whole new trap. Just as issues of whitewashing have come to a head with casting Johansson as a beloved and thoroughly Japanese character, Americanizing this franchise would only dredge up American cinema’s little-known and never-acknowledged borrowings from anime. In 1999 The Matrix pulled some of its best moves from anime, while Darren Aronofsky pulled some shots directly from the 1997 anime Perfect Blue into his Black Swan. And 2014’s shockingly good Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt vehicle Edge of Tomorrow was an explicit but largely unmentioned remake of the 2004 manga All You Need Is Kill. For many, these largely unacknowledged invocations have been a little recognized form of appropriation from a vibrant cinematic scene tantamount to whitewashing. And again, given the themes of Ghost in the Shell, it’d be just too ironic.
This all boils down to a fairly compelling situation, where a devoted fan base has been able to raise solid and valid critiques against increasingly anemic studio arguments in a very public forum. As the petition against Johansson’s casting gains steam, it’ll be a good referendum on just how democratically Hollywood can respond to a fair debate and real concerns aired in the public commons. But this movement on its own will probably still be unsuccessful at getting Johansson replaced for the simple fact that Hollywood isn’t a democracy—it’s an industry.
Ghost in the Shell’s producers and casting agents know that for all the outrage Johansson’s casting has generated, they can still make this project go forward. And the broad appeal of putting her in skimpy lingerie and having her kick cybernetic butt will be enough to turn over a solid profit for the franchise. Ghost in the Shell fans can’t argue right now that the attention they’re getting will cut into that profit in any serious way, or that casting say, Kikuchi, could replace Johansson’s celebrity value. (Although that’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma because the whitewashing impulse of the industry has never given most Asian actors a chance to demonstrate their bankability.) But though the campaign to replace Johansson is unlikely to succeed, in a wider sense, it seems that things might be changing.
Emma Stone as Anna Ng in Aloha
The Ghost in the Shell controversy is just one in a string of widespread, increasingly public and enduring anti-whitewashing campaigns. This June, Cameron Crow was forced to issue a half-apology for casting Emma Stone as the quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian Anna Ng in his freshly released Aloha. Then in July, Marvel publicly apologized for the mistake of designing a white Miss America in its LEGO Avengers game (ignoring the character’s Latin American heritage). And in August, a series of street protests and demonstrations against Roland Emmerich’s whitewashing people of color, trans people, and trans people of color out of their prominent role in the history behind his Stonewall drew intense, prolonged, and ongoing media coverage. The director, lead actor, and writer of the film were all eventually compelled to offer public justifications for the Stonewall’s production decisions.
None of the anti-whitewashing movements this year forced a deep, industry-wide apology or commitment to change. But they prove that studios can no longer just shrug off the issue. These recent movements also proved that anti-whitewashing sentiment seems to be getting wider and more aggressive, taking increasingly bold and public action rather than just grumbling itself out in think pieces and the isolation of theatre seats. As this momentum builds, studios may start to feel more costs associated with whitewashing—critical panning, the bad publicity of protests, and decreased ticket sales.
With the growing backlash against whitewashing, the next time a well-founded case arises against a bad casting call, studios might change their calculus, deciding that responding to the criticism dovetails with their own fiscal interests and acting accordingly. That’s especially true if that call is prophylactic rather than retroactive, like the pre-emptive campaign launched this spring discouraging Disney from whitewashing the presently uncast remake of Mulan. In order for that calculus to change, though, activists need to keep up the pressure on filmmakers directly or inadvertently involved in whitewashing. We need a continuous barrage of well-reasoned and grounded commentary. Thankfully, this summer’s events make it seem like that’s something society is probably up to—more so than ever before.
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