By: Sam Andico
May 5th saw the rise of #WhitewashedOUT, a hashtag campaign started by Margaret Cho, Ellen Oh, and The Nerds of Color. The purpose of the hashtag was, according to TNoC’s blog: “We want Hollywood studios, producers, and casting directors to stop casting white people in Asian roles – or any roles that should be filled by people of color.” This campaign rose on the heels of several casting announcements and trailer releases during April and the beginning of May (which is Asian-American & Pacific Islander [AAPI] Heritage Month).
On April 12th, the trailer for Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange was released, and waves of criticism arose over the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, who in the comics is traditionally a Tibetan man. According to the filmmakers, they scrubbed the characters’ Tibetan origins in fear of offending the Chinese government and losing their Chinese market (which has become truly lucrative market in the industry as of late). According to director Robert Cargill, another reason behind casting Swinton was that if an Asian man were to be cast as the Ancient One, it would continue to encourage the “Asian mysticism”/”Asian man teaches white man kung-fu” tropes present in Hollywood. However, if you were to look at Cargill’s argument on a deeper level, why is Doctor Strange’s manservant, Wong, still Asian like he is in the comic books? Wouldn’t that encourage Asian subservience (Wong) and the idea that only white individuals can play (Swinton as The Ancient One) all-powerful beings? It’s strange (no pun intended) that all of these characters are running around Asia and there are no Asians in the universe.
Two days later, the first image of Scarlett Johansson from Paramount Pictures’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell was released. Johansson is playing Motoko Kusanagi, the canonically Japanese cyborg field commander of Public Security Section 9. They even changed the name of the character, only referring to her as “The Major” rather than her original name, erasing the character’s Japanese background. Ghost was created in the context of Japan post-WWII disarmament and the rise of its tech industry, hence the story’s focus on the relationship between people and technology.
Scarlett Johansson as The Major in Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell (courtesy of Variety)
Sadly, Hollywood has been doing this for almost a hundred years now. Broken Blossoms (1919), The Good Earth (1937), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), to name a few, are classic films that promoted yellowface/whitewashing. Contemporary examples include 21 (2008), Aloha (2015), and these two, to put it lightly, ‘hot messes’:
Why is this still happening? Why is it still acceptable for a white woman to play someone who is part-AAPI? Why can’t AAPI individuals, play AAPI characters? So many questions, so few logical answers from major studios.
Thankfully, there are film franchises that are stepping it up in terms of diversity, the Star Wars saga being one. The Force Awakens (2015) included Asian actors such as Yayan Ruhian & Iko Uwais (both of them played the heads of Kanjiklub), Ken Leung (Admiral Statura), Jessica Henwick (Jessika Pava), and stuntman Liang Yang as FN-2199 (the “TRAITOR!” stormtrooper). Now, I’m definitely one for taking things with a grain of salt – but recently, John Boyega stated that Kelly Marie Tran, who was recently announced as a new cast member, was pretty much the “new lead” of the franchise in EP VIII (2017).
Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood can take a leaf out of Lucasfilm’s book and create films with actors that represent the populations they are attempting to connect to. We are here, and we are done being erased.