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Reel Representation: ‘Annihilation’ features actresses of color, but struggles with whitewashing

(Claire Sun/Daily Bruin)

By Olivia Mazzucato

Feb. 19, 2018 5:59 p.m.

My heart dropped when I saw the words “whitewashing” and “controversy” appear in a headline about the upcoming film “Annihilation.”

I’ve been excited for the film ever since its trailer dropped in December. The movie features an all-female scientific team exploring a mysterious environmental disaster zone, with two of the main characters played by Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson – two incredibly talented actresses of color. Hollywood doesn’t make a movie like this every day.

Then, I read an article detailing the accusations the film faced for its casting choices, and I felt a mixture of emotions – disappointment, surprise and, oddly, hope. Although “Annihilation” is a perpetrator of whitewashing, the director and cast responded to the allegations with grace, tact and an understanding that makes me optimistic. Hollywood may continue to cast roles unmindfully, but this instance proves some professionals in the industry are capable of acknowledging and learning from their mistakes.

“Annihilation” is adapted from a book of the same name, the first installment of the “Southern Reach” trilogy, and is minimal when it comes to description of the characters – it doesn’t specify characters’ names, much less their physical appearances or races.

However, in the series’ later books, the protagonist, played by Natalie Portman in the movie, is revealed to be an Asian woman, while the character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh is revealed to be Native American. Although the cast was finalized in 2016, the controversial nature of the decisions only recently came to light with the approach of the film’s release.

As an Asian woman, I’m all too familiar with how rare it is to see an Asian woman on screen, front and center. I can’t think of the last major film to feature a female Asian lead, especially a science fiction horror movie. Typically when Asian women are cast, we’re relegated to the role of the quiet nerdy kid in high school or the manic best friend in a rom-com.

“Annihilation” would have been a major opportunity for Asian-American representation, but unfortunately, when a character’s race isn’t specified, white is usually presumed as the default. In reading the article, I felt an acute sense of loss for an Asian character that would never make it to the screen.

However, as I continued reading the article, waiting for the inevitable Band-Aid “I’m not racist” statement from those involved in the film, I found the exact opposite.

Literally. Director Alex Garland wasn’t just regretful and open about the mistake – he acknowledged that whitewashing is a huge problem in Hollywood and held himself at fault for the film’s casting missteps. Even though he hadn’t read the other books in the series and didn’t know about the characters’ races, Garland said, “As a middle-aged white man, I can believe I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are.” The barefaced candor of his response is stunning, particularly because he incisively recognizes his privilege as the root of the problem.

Garland wasn’t the only one to express feelings of remorse. Both Portman and Leigh acknowledged the accusations of whitewashing as problematic and valid forms of criticism.

Upon reflection, their reactions seem like the bare minimum of what Hollywood should do – one would think it is intuitive to apologize for one’s mistakes. But multiple past examples of Hollywood’s poor reactions to backlash and accusations show that common sense is hard to come by.

Matt Damon’s film “The Great Wall” faced claims of whitewashing and perpetuating a white savior complex because it featured a white protagonist in ancient China who ostensibly swooped in to save the day. Damon publicly dismissed these claims as “a fucking bummer.” When fans pointed out how the forthcoming show “Iron Fist” was problematic in showing a white protagonist taking on Asian culture and fighting styles, lead actor Finn Jones went on the defensive, insisting the lead character wasn’t problematic, without acknowledging fans’ very legitimate concerns.

In a filmmaking landscape that is full of minefields and missteps, the decision to cast actresses of color is important in and of itself. While Garland’s color-blind casting approach whitewashed two of the characters, it also brought Rodriguez and Thompson into the film. Whiteness is so often seen as the default baseline for characters whose race is not specified. Perhaps due to the prevalence of white actors throughout Hollywood, it has become the norm – to the point where casting a person of color in a role not explicitly defined by race is almost a political statement, a rejection of the status quo.

It’s a fine line to navigate between being problematic and empowering. On the one hand, the film does offer up some incredible, arguably groundbreaking representation for African-American and Latina women. On the other hand, the project represents yet another place where Asian and Native American women have been erased from the narrative, even if unintentionally. Fortunately, in the case of “Annihilation,” the erasure does not come from a place of conscious discrimination, but reconciling the two deeply contrasting elements of the film is difficult, and I won’t say there’s one definitive answer or right way to approach the issue.

However, when “Annihilation” comes out Friday, I will be one of the people in line to see it. There’s too few films of this genre and caliber that feature women and women of color, and I can only hope that the next time around, Hollywood will get its casting choices right.

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Olivia Mazzucato
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