Hollywood has a complicated relationship with racial injustice in America, and for good reason — minority actors still struggle for representation in the industry. But when I heard controversy brewing about whitewashing yet again, I couldn’t believe that our nation hasn’t made more progress.
I spoke against whitewashing in February, in response to the movie “Ghost in the Shell.” In that film, Scarlett Johansson portrayed the main character Major Kusanagi, a Japanese character in the original manga series. Some may argue that this made sense for Hollywood — “Ghost in the Shell” is unknown to most Americans, so the producers might’ve wanted to cast a well-known actress for marketing purposes. But considering how much of a flop “Ghost in the Shell” was at the box office, that didn’t work well for the studio.
Whitewashing is when casting directors select white actors to play characters of color, and it’s historically been a problem in Hollywood. From older films, such as “The Ten Commandments” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to newer releases such as “Death Note,” white actors are frequently cast to play non-white characters. Whitewashing regularly makes headline news — but one actor recently decided to take action.
For the upcoming “Hellboy” reboot, white actor Ed Skrein was set to play Ben Daimio, who is Japanese in the original comics. When Skrein found out that Daimio was a Japanese character, he took to Twitter to announce his resignation from the role.
“It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day … we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality,” he wrote. “I am sad to leave Hellboy but if this decision brings us closer to that day, it is worth it. I hope it makes a difference.”
Daniel Dae Kim, famous for shows including “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O,” was cast in his stead. Kim and Skrein formed a new Hollywood bromance after Kim instagrammed a picture of them together. He thanked Skrein for taking a stand against Hollywood whitewashing.
And it wasn’t just Kim who thanked Skrein. Chloe Bennet from “Agents of Shield” said she hoped Skrein’s actions would inspire other actors to do the same. Riz Ahmed from “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” said awareness is the first step toward change, and John Cho from the “Star Trek” movie applauded Skrein’s effort to stand up against whitewashing.
Whether or not this bold move will inspire other actors to do the same is unknown. If it does, they could cause serious change — but if not, Skrein’s actions alone won’t solve whitewashing. It falls on everyone involved in the filmmaking process to give minorities more of a voice in the arts — especially if it’s a story about their identity.
But this argument still has its critics, and many just dismiss the problem altogether. Elise Lavallee of The Pitt News explained how such a simple argument can be ignored.
“If someone can simply ignore the effects of discrimination, it’s likely that it doesn’t affect them personally,” she said. “ … ignorance of privilege provides a climate desirable for racism to breed in.”
For example, in response to my column back in February, The Pitt News received a letter to the editor. The author argued casting is about skill, not skin color, so minorities just need to try harder.
But that’s misguided. Hollywood is simply more comfortable discriminating and casting well-known white actors instead, despite the fact that there are plenty of non-white actors in the industry. According to the 2015 census, 25.4 percent of actors in the United States aren’t white — and while it may not seem like much, that’s still over seven thousand professionals to choose from. Those seven thousand professionals aren’t the ones that need to try harder — it’s the producers, directors and casting agents that must.
Not actresses like Bennet, who says she had to change her last name from Wang simply because it made studios uncomfortable. Not actors like Idris Elba, who wanted to be James Bond but was criticized for being “too street.” And certainly not the diverse cast of “Star Trek: Discovery,” who received death threats from racist critics who thought there weren’t enough white people in the cast.
America is a nation that prides itself on diversity, and that diversity should be reflected in the films we make. Actors, producers, directors and writers alike must take a stand for what is right, rather than just considering fame, money or popularity.
Skrein saved Hollywood some valuable reputation points — but it won’t be the last time whitewashing happens. If more people in the industry see the example set by Skrein and take action, it’s possible for whitewashing to disappear. And if we as the audience demand change, it won’t be a tough decision for the industry to make.
Thomas primarily writes about visual media and gaming for The Pitt News.
Write to Thomas at email@example.com.