With characters of colour being played by white actors, Ruth Murphy, analyses whether Hollywood has a race problem.
Last month, it was announced that star of Deadpool, Ed Skrein, would play a character in the new Hellboy adaptation. This resulted in a backlash from fans of the original comics as the character that Skrein was to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Asian-American in the comics. Ed Skrein subsequently stated that he had been unaware of this and dropped out of the film.
He posted a statement on Twitter stating that “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts.”
Does it prove that the white person will always have a greater chance in Hollywood than an Asian person, regardless of the gender? Can a film only fit so many women and minorities?
Skrein’s comment points to a much wider issue than the casting of this one film. Is this a single mistake or a tendency?
Asian characters appear to be more common in comics than in books and some do make it into film, such as the character of Katana in Suicide Squad but many are eclipsed. Doctor Strange faced criticism when Tilda Swinton was cast to play a character who was an Asian man in the comics. The director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts defended the casting as a triumph for women. Is this really a positive or does it prove that the white person will always have a greater chance in Hollywood than an Asian person, regardless of gender? Can a film only fit so many women and minorities? In the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell the Asian main character of Motoko Kusanagi is played by Scarlet Johansson, a casting that is difficult to defend though easy to explain when you think of her fame.
While some might describe the choice to use actors that do not seem to match their original characters as simply an artistic decision this issue exists in other films where it is more difficult to ignore. Watching historical films you might start to believe that Asian people simply did not exist until recently and that black people’s only role was the slave. Christopher Nolan’s recent film Dunkirk, an American-British-Dutch collaboration, sparked discussion when it failed to feature actors of colour. These criticisms then faced an even greater backlash from those who claim that only white people fought in Dunkirk. The Royal Indian army is known to have fought on the British side and on the French side there were many troops from African colonies. This counter-backlash gives reason to question ourselves as cinema-goers as much as the film-makers. The choice of actors for this film can be defended not just by ignorance of who was at Dunkirk but also by Nolan’s decision to feature characters that were not based on real people. Nevertheless, this defence is lazier than simply featuring people of colour.
Watching historical films you might start to believe that Asian people simply did not exist until recently and that black people’s only role was the slave.
One film in which white-washing is impossible to ignore or understate is the film Stonewall about the 1969 riots of the same name. The event itself was known to feature many gay and trans people of colour but the film is mostly about white cisgender males. Marsha P. Johnson who self-identified as a “gay transvestite” is often named as the person who threw the first brick at the police at the Stonewall riots. Many promotional images for the film show the main character, fictional white male Danny Winters throwing the first brick. The director of the film Roland Emmerich, defended the character, in conversation with Buzzfeed News stating that “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting… [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” Can white straight people only relate to characters that look like them? Emmerich also said, “As a director, you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”
It may be that Hollywood believes that to appeal to the white audience you must show them themselves. This can explain why original screenplays are even less likely to feature people of colour. The most successful recent films featuring people of colour are based on true events or already written stories: Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, and Hidden Figures to name a few. It is more difficult to write a person out of a film than to never invent them.
It is notable that these films do not feature Asian leads and only one Asian man has ever won an Oscar for Best Actor. Ben Kingsley won twice for his roles in Gandhi and House of Sand and Frog.
Hollywood has an issue with race. New films are proving both that films can be successful while featuring actors of colour and also that the industry will continue to avoid casting people of colour despite this. It seems that casting directors are asking themselves “Why feature a person of colour when you can feature a famous white person? They’re much better known and we can relate to them.”