Whitewashing is a blot on the silver screen

By Martin Shore

Ed Skrein made headlines last month when he abandoned his casting in the upcoming Hellboy reboot. Skrein’s dramatic volte-face came after he discovered that his character was of Japanese American heritage (Skrein is white and British), following a backlash from an increasingly socially conscious audience. It is high time to discuss the problem of “whitewashing” in Hollywood, and what better opportunity than the live debate Skrein’s decision has generated?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, whitewashing in the movie industry is the casting of Caucasian actors as non-white characters. The most important reason whitewashing is a problem is that it makes it harder for non-white actors to become better known and progress their careers. Try listing as many non-white Hollywood actors as you can – I’m confident it’ll be harder to do than rattling off a list of recent, white Oscar winners. Western cinema has a problem with ethnic diversity on screen – a problem that can only be exacerbated when non-white characters are “whitewashed”.

A further reason that whitewashing is so damaging is because it decreases the authenticity of characters. In Hellboy: Rise of The Blood Queen, for instance, Major Ben Daimio was created as a Japanese American by the Marvel writers. What do film-makers gain by deviating from that fact? Portraying Daimio, Skrein would have fundamentally lacked the life experience – within reason of course: no one exactly lives with Hellboy – as the character he was embodying. How can characters be truly represented with these casting discrepancies?

Some might argue that talent should trump ethnic ‘truthfulness’ in casting decisions. The quality of your product should certainly be important if you care about your art. Yet these ‘talent absolutists’ are implying something rather unthinkable. Namely, ‘talent > race’ posits that there is a lower level of talent outside of Western cinema. This is a laughable claim. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is viewed as one of the most historically influential filmmakers – of the “New Hollywood” American directors in the 1970s, for example.

A concerning implication of whitewashing, to actors and the public alike, is that cinema does not value actors of colour as much as white actors.

Moreover, this talent maxim does not appear to apply in reverse. Some have argued that Idris Elba cannot portray James Bond – who has thus far only been portrayed by white actors. But there have been a series of different “James Bonds”, loosely tied to the code 007. Elba as Bond would scarcely marginalise this group of actors, in contrast to the much greater impact when one of the fewer non-white characters in Western media is whitewashed on the silver screen.

A concerning implication of whitewashing, to actors and the public alike, is that cinema does not value actors of colour as much as white actors. Consider, for instance, Lewis Tan’s unsuccessful audition for the title role in Netflix’s adaptation of Iron Fist. Despite being able to choreograph and carry out his own fight sequences, Tan was passed over in favour of white actor Finn Jones. Jones’ acting is arguably a major reason for the harsh critical reception that Iron Fist has received.

Although the character Iron Fist was originally white, he had strong Asian links, and in this instance Tan, an Asian American, was passed over when he could have improved the quality of the end-product. In contrast, Marvel’s (and Netflix’s) team-up show The Defenders should be celebrated for its diversity with both a black and female member in the ensemble – rare in the superhero genre. Its inconsistency in Iron Fist is therefore a disconcerting setback.

I recognise that on-screen diversity seems to be moving in an encouraging direction. Smash hits such as Disney’s Moana and the upcoming Black Panther solo movie are enabling actors of colour to gain a foothold in big budget cinema. These changes are not exclusively in the realm of fantasy: it’s surely no coincidence that films such as the phenomenal Detroit are starting to take centre stage in movie theatres. Audiences are becoming growingly receptive of a more diverse cinematic experience.

This increasingly vocal audience should prove vital in raising Hollywood’s diversity – and be more aware of and willing to condemn whitewashing. After all, cinema is an entertainment industry which thrives on the money spent on its products. If boycotts like those aimed at Netflix’s Death Note adaptation, which already has a petition amassing over 10,000 signatures, gain greater traction with this audience, the industry will have to respond in kind because it can not risk haemorrhaging cash. Hopefully, whitewashing will eventually cease to be an issue, but for now I am very comfortable to vocalise my concern over the inequality in cinema.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr and Creative Commons

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    Sep 11, 2017 - 11:08 AM

    Lewis Tan wasn’t passed in favor of anyone, he was never up for the part. he just sent a self tape “because I’m half white”and the casting was about acting emotional scenes, not showing off abs and kung fu. oh, and he is British, not American. Stop with this nonsense

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