Letter to the Editor: Hollywood hires on skill, not race

Scarlett Johansson at the Academy Awards in 2015. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Note: The author of this letter has written for The Pitt News in the past.

I am writing this letter in response to Mr. Thomas Wick’s recent opinion piece on the topic of whitewashing in Hollywood [Feb. 15]. I will preface my response by saying that I am a half-Chinese, half-Lebanese student at Pitt with dual American-Canadian citizenship. I come from a multi-cultural background, and Asian culture in particular has been a large part of my upbringing. As such, whenever the the topic of so-called “whitewashing” in regards to Asians in Hollywood is brought up, it usually captures my attention, although likely not in the way most would initially assume.

To begin with, I am skeptical of the belief that Hollywood, or any other organization at all for that matter, is somehow required to hire employees merely on the basis of arbitrary characteristics such as race or skin color. As with any job, the requirements should be that the person most skilled for the position is the one most eligible to be hired. Hollywood, however, is a popularity contest in regard to choosing its performers. Executives care about faces that sell, and the examples that Mr. Wick cites are prime examples of this.

Zhang Yimou is one of the most forefront names in Chinese cinema, and he has previously employed foreigners in his films. His 2005 drama, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” centered around a Japanese man, played by the late actor Ken Takakura, traveling to China in order to fulfill a promise for his dying son. Takakura was a veteran Japanese performer beloved by many Chinese, and Zhang chose him despite the often strained relations between these two countries in an effort of cross-cultural exchange. His 2011 war film, “The Flowers of War,” starred Christian Bale as an American character who aided Chinese citizens during the events of the Nanking Massacre. Foreign nationals were a major part in this moment of horrific history, and Yimou chose Bale to play one of these pivotal roles. His latest picture, “The Great Wall,” has Matt Damon as a Western soldier in Song Dynasty-era China, which seems to be what Mr. Wick takes issue with. During this time, China did indeed have relations with Western countries due to the fact that the nation was a powerful global center. Do you notice a pattern? This is not the first time Yimou has utilized non-Chinese actors in his work, and like before, this is for the purpose of telling a narrative that deals with foreigners in unfamiliar settings. If anything, Damon’s inclusion represents intended diversity as Yimou is not limiting himself to only Chinese performers. And as an actor popular both at home and abroad, the decision to utilize Damon makes absolute sense from a business perspective.

Mr. Wick’s second example of “Ghost in the Shell” is even more straightforward. If you ask the average American on the street what “Ghost in the Shell” is, I guarantee that the majority would not be able to answer. This is a franchise known only to hardcore anime fans, something that would be a serious risk at the box office for a Western studio. Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, is a major star and a name that sells tickets. Considering that this is a Western-made film for a Western market, what exactly is the problem here? It is not as if the Japanese are immune to this trend with their own movies either. “Attack on Titan,” a popular anime franchise, is set in Germany with a cast of primarily white characters. For the Japanese live-action adaptation, however, Japanese actors were employed. Where was the outcry over white characters being played by Asians? Would this not be an example of “yellow-washing?”

As an Asian-American, I appreciate Mr. Wick’s concern as a non-Asian for wishing my race to have more representation in Hollywood, but fame should not be something handed over to a person simply because they were born with arbitrary genetic characteristics. A cursory Google search will reveal the names of Asian artists such as Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, Sessue Hayakawa, Jackie Chan, George Takei, Tadanobu Asano, Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ang Lee, John Woo and many more who have succeeded in the Western entertainment industry. These are people who were not awarded stardom because they were Asian but because they were talented performers, directors and writers who achieved success through their own determination and hard work.

I have to particularly call out Mr. Wick for his statement, “Go see films with diverse casts in theaters, multiple times if you can, and boycott films and franchises that could have cast more minority actors but failed to take the initiative.” Is this honestly what we as human beings should care about? Boycotting an artist’s work simply because they did not choose the “right” ethnicity of a fictional character? Is one of the central tenets of free speech not the idea that someone should be free to express themselves in whatever way they choose? The burden is ultimately on every individual person interested in going into the entertainment industry to put forth the effort if they wish to become famous, regardless of which race they happened to have been born.

When asked about being on how he felt as a Chinese actor working in Hollywood, Bruce Lee replied, “You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being.”

If we were to perhaps stop focusing on our arbitrary divides and come to the realization that underneath our skin, we all bleed the same blood, I believe that much more harmony between peoples would be achieved. Do not group entire races into single entities, assuming that we think the same. Realize that we are individuals, all of whom are given an equal chance to achieve our individual goals. No one is owed success, as it can only be earned. Do not expect something for nothing.

Oliver Jia

Sophomore, Japanese and English writing major


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this letter referred to Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s last name as “Yimou.” According to Chinese naming customs, last name precedes first name, and so the director’s last name is Zhang. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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