Whitewashing in movies remains an ongoing problem, but at least we seem to be getting better at calling it out. Remember what happened with the live-action Ghost In The Shell, which cast Scarlett Johansson as an Asian character? Pop culture sites like Collider and IndieWire called it racist, reviews ripped into it for its erasure of an iconic (among anime nerds) Asian heroine, and it was widely trolled on Twitter by everyone who was even vaguely aware of the controversy. And the constant criticism worked! The movie bombed, and the studio admitted that the controversy played a part in its failure. People rose up to protest an ongoing problem and got results. Hooray!
Now let’s fast-forward a few months to when the fourth season of BoJack Horseman was released. In BoJack, the incredibly white Allison Brie voices Vietnamese-American Diane Nguyen, and the launch of its highly anticipated new season seemed like a great opportunity to discuss the fact that the show, which is happy to joke about whitewashing in Hollywood, prioritized white star power over providing an authentic voice. So let’s see … oh, Collider called it “brilliant” and IndieWire said it was the “most honest and soulful season yet.” Follow the show’s mentions on Twitter, and you’ll see everything short of people straight-up masturbating while talking about how much they love it. Google “Ghost in the Shell Scarlet Johansson” and you get a page full of criticism. “BoJack Horseman Allison Brie” produces fawning interviews with Brie.
Why the difference? There are a lot of factors, but the simplest one is this: Ghost In The Shell is sitting at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while BoJack is at 89 percent. Most of the (white) people I knew who slammed Ghost In The Shell had no idea what it was and had no plans to see it anyway. Those same people will happily tell me about how funny BoJack is and how much it speaks to them about their lives. We’re happy to raise hell about whitewashing, but only as long as we don’t give a shit about whatever crappy show is guilty of it. (Full disclosure: Not only do I love BoJack, but I am one of the eight people who saw Ghost In The Shell. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.)
There are many more examples, if you’re not buying the Ghost In The Shell / BoJack comparison. Criticism of whitewashing from white critics and fans is almost directly proportional to how much we care about the movie to begin with, while criticism from minorities is only acknowledged if we weren’t planning to buy a ticket — otherwise it gets drowned out by the sounds of us shoveling popcorn into our mouths. I couldn’t tell you the plot of Aloha if you held a gun to my head, but I do know that it was ripped for casting Emma Stone as a character of mixed white, Chinese, and Hawaiian descent, and for making Hawaii look as white as a snowed-in Cracker Barrel. The Daily Beast wrote a story called “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?! The Unbearable Whiteness of Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’: A Hawaii-Set Film Starring Asian Emma Stone.”
But a few months after Aloha flopped, they wrote multiple flattering articles about The Martian, including an interview wherein they gently lobbed softballs at director Ridley Scott. The Martian, as the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans and almost no one else bothered pointing out, took a Korean-American character from the book and recast her as a white woman, while the Indian Dr. Venkat Kapoor was recast as the black “Vincent,” presumably because the idea of a mission to Mars involving someone named Venkat was deemed just too unbelievable. Aloha is at 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and made $26.3 million, while The Martian is sitting on 91 percent and a cool $630 million. Aloha was easy to complain about because it was garbage that no one wanted to see anyway, whereas positive word of mouth made everyone in the country want to witness Matt Damon get rescued. Again.
Don’t worry, though, because Scott got the criticism he deserved for Exodus: Gods And Kings, in which he cast Christian Bale as Moses and John Turturro and Joel Edgerton as Egyptian royalty, since nothing says Ancient Egypt like lily-white men and an Australian accent. Gods Of Egypt was also slammed for making Egypt look like Utah. Those movies are at 27 percent and 15 percent “fresh,” respectively, and even though you just read their names, you’ve already gone back to forgetting that they exist. Mashable’s review of Exodus, which was dedicated almost entirely to the controversy, declared that “The whitewashed cast of ‘Exodus’ is irresponsible — and its own demise.” Mashable’s review of The Martian calls it “stellar,” and doesn’t mention the casting changes at all. So go ahead and whitewash as much as you want, Ridley — just make sure the end result is entertaining.
How about The Great Wall, in which the white Matt Damon inexplicably helps defend ancient China from monsters? A Daily Beast writer “felt the bile rise at the sight of another blatant white savior narrative.” But a year later, The Daily Beast declared that “With ‘Dunkirk,’ Christopher Nolan Proves He’s Blockbuster Cinema’s Most Daring Auteur.” Dunkirk arguably has more of a white savior complex — Nolan left out the Indian and African soldiers who fought in the British and French armies entirely, turning the movie into a bunch of white guys saving civilization all by themselves. At least The Great Wall came up with a decent excuse for Matt Damon to star alongside Chinese actors (he’s a European mercenary searching for the knowledge to make gunpowder who gets caught up in their conflict). Christopher Nolan just took one look at the complicated legacy of colonialism, said “More like borelonialsm!” and casually whitewashed one of the most famous moments in human history. But The Great Wall looked dumb and is at 35 percent, while Dunkirk is a visual spectacle that’s 93 percent fresh. So one’s a shameful moment in Hollywood history, and the other is an incredible accomplishment that will win awards.
Marvel’s Iron Fist, wherein Finn Jones plays a stereotypical mystical martial arts expert with all the energy of a comatose sloth? “Racially uncomfortable” and “falling into the white savior trope,” and an RT 17 percent. Marvel’s Doctor Strange, wherein Tilda Swinton plays Asian character who was originally Asian? “Engaging, smartly cast.” “Tilda Swinton has a central role in this film, and it’s far better for it.” And it’s sitting pretty at 90 percent. Doctor Strange had its detractors too, but that didn’t stop us from giving it over $677 million. Again, Doctor Strange was arguably more problematic, as it took a character who was Asian in the comics and handed it to a white actress. At least Iron Fist‘s Danny Rand was always white, although that hardly makes it impossible to reinterpret him. But Doctor Strange was fun, while Iron Fist was a cure for insomnia. So the latter was perpetually dogged by whitewashing complaints, while white writers and fans briefly acknowledged the criticism of the former while waiting in line at the theater to buy candy.
The lesson Hollywood has to be taking away from all of this isn’t to avoid whitewashing; it’s to make sure a whitewashed movie is good enough that the controversy can be buried beneath a tidal wave of box office receipts. When Dragonball: Evolution (14 percent) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (6 percent) tried to start franchises, they were widely decried for sticking white actors in Asian roles, and both flopped. When Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen, who in the books is described as having “olive skin” and who lives in a dystopia where the well-off are white, it started a blockbuster series that grossed $2.9 billion. Whatever complaints about whitewashing in The Hunger Games (84 percent) managed to reach the mainstream didn’t stop the franchise from getting its own theme park.
If this pattern doesn’t change, every complaint about whitewashing from white people is going to look like nothing more than phony outrage to score points with each other on social media. It’s a protest against Hollywood practices that lasts right up until Hollywood makes a movie we want to see, and self-righteousness that accomplishes nothing beyond letting us pat ourselves on the back for skipping a movie we weren’t going to watch anyway. If this is something we actually care about, we have to make the ultimate sacrifice and not watch good movies. I know that sounds awful, but just think of all the potential for feeling heroic if it works.
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