Diversity in film and television came into the spotlight in 2016 with #OscarsSoWhite. A USC study in 2016 found only about a quarter of speaking characters belonged to nonwhite racial groups. In “Reel Representation,” columnist Olivia Mazzucato discusses different issues of race and representation in media as they relate to new movies and TV shows.
I wish I could have been in the pitch meeting for the upcoming movie, “The Great Wall.” How does one pitch an epic monster movie set in ancient China with a white protagonist played by Matt Damon?
“The Great Wall” is only the latest blockbuster film to face accusations of whitewashing.
Last year’s “Doctor Strange” and “Gods of Egypt” were just a few films that faced backlash over whitewashing – the practice of casting white actors to play nonwhite characters. The upcoming “Ghost in the Shell,” an adaptation of a Japanese manga, faced controversy for casting Scarlett Johansson as the lead and using special effects tests to make white actors appear Asian.
Some believe whitewashing is not a problem and is simply about casting the best actor. However, whitewashing is a real problem that operates on outdated views of the ideal Hollywood image and is perpetuated by studios, filmmakers and actors who continue to allow such films to be produced. The only way to combat whitewashing is for those with power in Hollywood to take accountability and speak out against whitewashed films.
“The Great Wall” and “Ghost in the Shell” are complicated films to look at because the whitewashing isn’t as blatant as past films.
Variety’s review of “The Great Wall” asserts that whitewashing accusations are unfounded because Damon’s character is humbled by the Chinese characters. Both Damon and director Zhang Yimou defended Damon’s casting, asserting that Damon’s casting didn’t “take away a role from a Chinese actor.”
“Ghost in the Shell” is harder to defend because of its Japanese source material. The film deracialized Johansson’s character’s name from Major Motoko Kusanagi to The Major. Director Rupert Sanders’ primary defense for his casting choices is that he saw the film as a multicultural, international story.
In both instances, the casting seems commercially motivated – Damon and Johansson have star status. Star power is an important factor because one of the driving forces behind whitewashing is a pervasive Hollywood belief that actors of color are unmarketable.
The belief is typified by Hollywood titans like Ridley Scott, director of “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” After facing backlash for casting white actors in his Middle Eastern-set Biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Scott said in an interview with Variety, “I can’t mount a film (like Exodus) of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
The statement represents a worldview challenged by researchers. UCLA’s “2016 Hollywood Diversity Report” showed a link between films with more diverse casts and higher global box offices. Although these statistics cannot prove a direct causation that these films grossed higher because of their diversity, there is a correlation. Financially speaking, it seems that diversity is a lucrative idea, despite what studio moguls may think.
“The Great Wall” does feature a primarily Asian cast, but that doesn’t change the fact that Damon is the protagonist. The plot veers uncomfortably toward the white-savior storyline, in which a white character rescues helpless characters of color and learns something about themself along the way.
Obviously, here’s no historical basis for an invasion of monsters in China, a note Damon was quick to point out. Regardless, it’s troubling that the Chinese characters in the film are not granted the autonomy to save themselves – instead, Damon is paramount to their survival.
Another troubling dynamic within the issue is the lack of acknowledgment of whitewashing at all. When asked at New York Comic Con about the controversy surrounding the film, Damon said it was “a f—in’ bummer.” He promised to listen to whitewashing complaints after people saw the movie, but his doubt about the legitimacy of such claims is clear.
Johansson expressed similar sentiments about “Ghost in the Shell” in a recent interview with Marie Claire, saying, “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity.”
Both Damon’s and Johansson’s statements, while not necessarily ill-intentioned, are difficult to swallow. Damon comes across as dismissive and more focused on positive publicity, and Johansson pivots the discussion from race to gender, ignoring the intersectionality of the two.
Neither actor set out to erase Asian representation. Damon was eager to work with Zhang and Johansson was excited to play a female protagonist because of the scarcity of such roles in Hollywood. But the innocence of their intentions doesn’t negate their responsibility.
Whether or not whitewashing played a part in their castings, they are undeniably a part of the conversation now. They have an obligation to use their platform in a meaningful way – speaking out against whitewashing when it happens and refusing to participate in projects where it occurs – or at the very least, understanding the gravity of the issue.
Dismissing charges of whitewashing as “a f—in’ bummer” just doesn’t cut it.