It’s 2015, and Hollywood Shamelessly Continues its Whitewashing

by: Douglas Grant

A disturbing trend in Hollywood rears its ugly head….

Scarjo

Twenty years later, 1995’s cyberpunk thriller Ghost in the Shell remains one of my favorite science fiction films for its smart script and visual aesthetic. Mamoru Oshii’s cult classic is considered a milestone in Japanese animation, and has inspired sci-fi filmmakers such as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and the Wachowskis. The movie is based on a popular Manga of the same name, and now Hollywood is gearing up for a live-action adaptation, helmed by director Rupert Sanders1, in an attempt to reimagine the mythology. Reimagine is the key term here, as Ghost in the Shell’s protagonist, a Japanese cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi, is being played by none other than Scarlett Johansson, an actor of Danish and Ashkenazi Jewish lineage. I find the news of a live-action version unwelcome enough, but casting Johansson as Major Kusanagi is downright offensive.

I’ve been a fan of Scarlett since 2003 when I was introduced to her in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and my displeasure at her being cast as the lead in Ghost in the Shell has nothing to do with her. Rather I’m perturbed at the fact that producers – seemingly starved of original ideas and content lately – unapologetically continue to cast Caucasians in roles that deviate from whatever source material they’re borrowing from. This has been going on since the dawn of filmmaking, but it’s remarkable that since the Civil Rights movement casting agents and directors have audaciously appropriated white people to portray characters of African, Asian, and Latino descent. And it seems that, besides the outraged fans who take to the internet to air their discontent, very few people are raising eyebrows on this issue.

Josh Hartnett as Eben Olesen in 30 Days of Night (2007)
All the lead characters in 21 (2008)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

A brief history lesson shows us that for the greater part of the twentieth century, Hollywood was not only casting whites in American minority roles, but many of the actors were interpreting these same roles in offensive caricatures. Laurence Olivier played Othello in blackface. Blue-eyed John Wayne couldn’t suspend audience’s disbelief with his ridiculous depiction of Genghis Khan. Bruce Lee was so offended by Mickey Rooney’s cartoonish interpretation of Truman Capote’s character I. Y. Yunioshi that he got up and left the theater in the middle of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This went on for a long time, and it’s a shameful facet of our nation’s racist past. And although we’ve come a long way since then, with non-white actors receiving accolades for their onscreen performances in the form of Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards, if you look closely enough you’ll realize that white actors are still filling roles written for characters of different ethnicities, and this trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Every hero but not the villain (Dev Patel) in The Last Airbender (2010)
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in Argo (2012)
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012)

Let’s take a moment to consider star power. Big name actors fill movie theater seats, and studios need to see big box office numbers to justify a film’s budget. I get that. In this day and age I am more painfully aware than ever that a good story and high artistic integrity both take a back seat to the pressures of making sure a blockbuster has a big opening weekend. And so studio executives must weigh a movie star’s ability to sell tickets and make a casting decision along these lines. It’s why movies are built around stars and actors sign on for three picture deals. For the sake of argument we can use Ghost in the Shell as an example in this scenario. Imagine these same execs consider Maggie Q, Rinko Kikuchi, or even Ziyi Zhang for the part of Major Kusanagi, but after a day of crunching numbers, they decide that although these talented actors have international acclaim, none of them are as widely recognized by American audiences as Johansson. And so another role – a character that was written as an Asian woman – goes to a white actor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013)
Pretty much anyone cast in Noah (2014)

In taking into account how prevalent whitewashing in Hollywood still is today, it had been my original intent to provide a laundry list of examples, films from the last ten years that are guilty of this practice. But as I dug deeper, I uncovered so many movies that had whites representing other races that it became too lengthy a list to include here in the narrative. It’s absolutely appalling, and as a lover of cinema it was increasingly difficult for me to accept, especially since my cynicism with Hollywood has really taken root in the last decade or so. You can see the list for yourself throughout.

Pretty much anyone cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha (2015)
Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan (2015)

There’s no denying that racial tensions in this country have been running higher of late than many of us would like to acknowledge. The movie industry has the power to address this, either with positive messages of racial integration or, at the very least, escapism from the reality of a racial divide that still troubles our society. But every now and then we get slapped in the face with the false idea that White Hollywood is representative of the countless stories being told by diverse cultures from all around the world. This only feeds into the negativity that separates us. Maybe it’s time the industry took a good long look in the mirror and asked itself if this is really what it wants its legacy to be.

  1. The director of Snow White and the Huntsman. []

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