Firstly, I am well aware that by delving into this heavy subject, I am walking across a hypothetical minefield in order to prod a hypothetical hornets’ nest. What could potentially be a relatively simple issue is unfortunately too mired in straw-man arguments, ignorance, identity politics, and high-octane emotional opinions and prejudices to be able to form a rational, objective dialectic or discussion (and I’m far from asserting that I am the moral arbiter of this subject). For example, whilst the piece I’m about to write could contain nothing but facts and assertions that are 100% true and accurate with regards to the subject of whitewashing (optimistic but unlikely), one could disregard it all simply because I’m a white, vaguely middle-class twenty-something (thanks Buzzfeed). But, as Sam Harris said, “If you’re talking about reality, its character cannot be predicated on who you happen to be; in fact, that’s what it means to be talking about reality”.
With the money-making behemoth Marvel giving birth to yet another half-a-billion dollar-making baby – or if you’d prefer “film” – in the form of Doctor Strange, the doomed to be forgotten hub-bub surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton from back in the summer of 2015 is still circulating the interwebnet like Beyblades did in primary schools during the early 00s (shout-out to our old caretaker Andy who actually installed Beyblade arenas for us on the tables surrounding our school). Many questions were raised – and continue to be raised towards the philosophy and thought-process behind casting a white actress to play a role that, in the comic upon which the film is based, is supposed to be Tibetan. For many, this is yet another example of whitewashing in Hollywood, whereby white people are cast in traditionally non-white character roles – thereby implying, or rather denoting, an inherent bias in favour of white people in the film industry.
To preface with a gargantuan understatement, Hollywood hasn’t had the best history when it comes to racial sensitivity. Going back over the depictions of people of colour through the years in film is an absolute horror show. From the ivory towers of our millennial, PC-infused thrones, the portrayals in films of the past are so tactless, distasteful, and cringe-worthy that, upon witnessing it with your own eyes, one struggles to do anything other than hang your mouth in shock, or laugh hysterically at what on earth they were thinking. And the list of examples could even make Jim Davidson feel guilty; John Wayne‘s portrayal of Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror, Lawrence Olivier doing “blackface” for the role of Othello (and the film of the same name) in 1965, Peter Sellers playing an Indian man in 1968’s The Party, and whilst Marlon Brando‘s infamously awkward-to-watch performance as an Asian man in 1965’s The Teahouse of the August Moon will make you wince, Mickey Rooney‘s rendition of “yellowface” in 1961’s classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s as I. Y. Yunioshi will make you cringe so hard that your spleen will turn into a diamond:
Whilst we thankfully live in an era where films no longer unironically include absurd caricatures of people of colour, and where white people wear prosthesis and make-up in order to look like a person of colour, whitewashing has evolved into something less blatant and obvious as the previous examples. Whether it be the use of Jake Gyllenhaal in The Prince of Persia, or Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt, whilst it’s not quite an outright exhibition of racism or racial bias, there is something evidently strange about watching a film based in Africa – for example – about a character who is from Africa, but being played by a white actor. It’s especially bizarre considering the abundance of non-white acting talent available to fill these roles, not to mention the industry’s hyper-awareness of the mistakes of the past in this current socio-political climate.
World renowned director Ridley Scott‘s 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings received a similar backlash with his decision to cast four white actors (in the form of Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, and Sigourney Weaver) to play Egyptians. Scott responded to the controversy with the incredibly incendiary statement: “I can’t mount a film 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 financed”. That statement, jarring as it certainly is, could perhaps be an honest, but sad comment on the current state of the film industry’s attitude towards diversity in casting. But whilst you could concede that, when attempting to find a movie star for the lead role of a film with a budget of over $140 million, in all likelihood the actor is going to be white (in this case Christian Bale), it’s nonetheless hard to argue for the bankability of white actor Joel Edgerton – for example – for the role of Rameses II (as referenced in this hilarious Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment). The “I need bankable movie stars, and unfortunately most of them are white” argument kind of goes out of the window when very minor roles of films set in predominantly black or Asian countries go to white actors or actresses of questionable “bankability” or stardom. Also, the casting of relatively unknown black actor John Boyega as main character Fin in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – what with the film being the 2nd highest-grossing movie of all time (grossing $2.068 billion) – sort of proves Ridley Scott’s theory to be faulty at best, and wrong at worst (although it is to be acknowledged that Star Wars has the safety-net of having one of the largest and most loyal fan-bases ever – a safety net that Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t have).
With regards to the casting of Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’ in Doctor Strange however, it’s not as clear-cut. As the Nostalgia Critic from Youtube’s ‘Channel Awesome‘ points out, the apparent bias against Tibetan actors in the casting of Doctor Strange wasn’t born from racism, but from a business stand-point. Reportedly 18% of Marvel Film’s income comes from China and, as a result of the historical political tension between Tibet and China, alienating a demographic of people who are responsible for 18% of your income for the sake of a comic-book character’s continuity isn’t really worth it. This was somewhat confirmed by Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill who said in a ‘Double Toasted’ interview: “The Ancient One originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going: ‘Hey, we’re one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world and we’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political'”. As a result, they changed The Ancient One from Tibetan to Celtic once Tilda Swinton was cast.
There’s also the other side to this that doesn’t get acknowledged. The fury of the SJW culture that is growing online (a movement that vehemently – and often misguidedly – attempts to condemn and quash examples of apparent racial injustice), in a twist of irony, might actually be partially responsible for some examples of whitewashing in recent years. In other words, the intense scrutiny films are under in order to avoid any controversy or backlash with regards to diversity, and the fervent nature of those all too willing to condemn casting decisions, has perhaps created a scenario in which directors and producers may wish to avoid using non-white actors to play characters of the same race for fear of not accurately portraying, or accidentally offending, a specific demographic if they did cast a non-white actor. In the case of Doctor Strange, writer C. Robert Cargill described the casting of The Ancient One as “the Kobayashi Maru“; had they cast a Tibetan actor to play The Ancient One in the same fashion that The Ancient One is portrayed in the original comics, they would roundly be accused of racism due to exhibiting a racially insensitive Fu Manchu stereotype. Had they cast a Tibetan woman, they would be equally accused of racism due to exhibiting an insensitive Dragon-Lady stereotype. Had they settled for simply an Asian actor or actress to play The Ancient One, whether they be Japanese, or Chinese, or Indian, it’s likely they’d be accused of implying that all Asian people are the same, or that the individual differences between Asian countries in terms of culture or history are somehow negligible. As you can see, and as mentioned in the opening line of this article, the whole thing is a politically correct minefield.
There’s also the sense that the majority of the offence comes from people who are being offended on a demographic’s behalf, rather than the demographic itself. For example, there was a similar uproar when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was to play Motoko Kusanagi in a live-action film adaptation of Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell, as many people in the west complained that, yet again, the race or ethnicity of a character in the original source material was being ignored in favour of giving a role to another white person. However, in a rather revealing video from Japanese Youtube channel ‘That Japanese Man Yuta’, when a handful of people in Japan were shown the news that Scarlett Johansson will be playing Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, the majority of the people in the video thought it was a good choice. In fact, even when they were informed that the casting decision had received criticism in the US, of the people shown in the video, none of them had a clue as to what the criticism could be. Even when they were told that the criticism concerned whitewashing, a couple of people even went as far as saying that, due to the western aesthetic of anime characters, the decision to cast a white person in the form of Scarlett Johansson would be more suitable than casting a Japanese actress.
There are also some easily avoidable obstacles that are needlessly created, preventing progress in terms of improving diversity in the film industry. Like with any debate, regardless of the morally virtuous intent of an argument, poor arguments are poor arguments. By all means, make people aware of whitewashing, and point out examples and illustrate exactly how they are wrong, or how they are misguided, or – as with the Tilda Swinton example – how they should be given a pass within the right contexts; and it’s that intellectual integrity and honesty that will make people rally to the cause in a heartbeat. However, if you use fallacious or hypocritical arguments, some people may feel as though an agenda is governing your opinions, as opposed to a determination to find the truth. For example, whilst many in the US will chastise a film or studio for changing the race of a character from the original source material, when black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione Granger for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the same people applauded the play’s casting decision. In fact the sentiment: “Of course Hermione Granger can be black; she’s a fictional character and so a different interpretation is allowed” was commonplace. J.K Rowling herself even said in a tweet: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”. Now whilst I have absolutely no issue with a black actress playing Hermione Granger (personally, when it comes to portrayals of fictional characters, as long as the person performs the role well, I do not care what race the actor or actress is), the smell of hypocrisy abounds. If the casting of Noma Dumezweni for the role of Hermione came about due to her being the best actress for the job, and for a push for more diversity in the cast, then that’s fine – but that’s what should be said in response to people who query the decision. As has been pointed out by people both defending and criticising the decision to cast Noma Dumezweni for the role of Hermione, Rowling’s supportive tweet has its heart in the right place, but is dishonest. It is clear that Rowling had envisioned Hermione as white in the books; describing Hermione looking tanned after a hot summer, occasions where her cheeks go pink, and moments when Hermione’s face “went white” when frightened or in stressful situations (not to mention an illustration Rowling herself drew of the characters in Harry Potter) are all clear indicators. Had Rowling intended Hermione to have been black in the books, the phrasing listed above would be distractedly awkward and strange. It’s understandable why Rowling tweeted that, and to immediately stand up to the barrages of racist hate directed at Noma Dumezweni is commendable, but it still revealed a moment of intellectual dishonesty; it was more convenient for her to pretend that she didn’t have a specific race in mind for Hermione throughout the entire book series than it was to give unnecessary, and undeserved credence to the racist dissent.
People have the propensity to use poor or fallacious arguments when it suits them – even if the same argument that they used earlier is being used back at them in another debate. They rarely bother questioning whether the argument supporting their position is valid since it’s attempting to help their case and promote their point of view – and they don’t wish to look a gift horse-meat lasagna in the mouth. Therefore it’s common to find all arguments in support of diversity being enthusiastically used by those who wish to fight back against bigotry, but this exuberance often causes fallacious arguments with good intentions to slip through the net – thereby allowing bigots to criticise their opponents for arguing in a dishonest, hypocritical, or underhanded manner, even though no such arguments need to be resorted to in order to fight bigotry.
In short, don’t move goalposts by suggesting that creative allowances can be made with the race of fictional characters one second (the Noma Dumezweni/Hermione example), and then insist that there is no wiggle room when it comes to the race of other fictional characters (the Tilda Swinton/The Ancient One example). That mentality, combined with questionable sentences in some reviews and articles complaining about casts being “disappointingly white”, needlessly gives ammunition to those who seem to believe that the most oppressed demographic of the modern era are white people. It creates an “us versus them” mentality amongst some people which, ironically, is one of the very attitudes that are preventing more people from getting on board with increasing diversity in the film industry. Whilst whitewashing is a very real issue, and bias in favour of white actors and actresses is a problem that we need to fix, each individual instance should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Whilst I have no authority to say what will fix the issue (and nor do I claim to), I do know that shouting and screaming “whitewashing!” and “racism” at every opportunity won’t. On the contrary, not only will that take much-needed attention away from examples of genuine whitewashing and racism (much like the parable of the boy who cried wolf), but ultimately it will make the goal of improving diversity harder to achieve.