The Martian is Guilty of Whitewashing
Last Thursday the Media Action Network For Asian-Americans [MANAA] issued a statement criticizing director Ridley Scott for the whitewashing of Asian roles in his film The Martian. Their judgements are twofold, namely citing that:
- NASA’s director of Mars operations Dr. Venkat Kapoor as an Asian-Indian character who identifies religiously as being “a Hindu.” The group pointed out that in Scott’s film, his name is changed to Vincent Kapoor, and he’s played by British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who says his father was “a Hindu” but that his mother was “Baptist.”
- Mindy Park, described by Weir as Korean-American, is played in the movie by Mackenzie Davis, a white, blonde actress.
Now I wish I could proceed on to the rest of this blog post, but people have asked the question as to whether or not this is, technically, whitewashing. It’s going to take a few paragraphs, but let’s get that out of the way-
Okay, The Martian is Guilty of Racebending/Whitewashing
Let’s start from the very, very, very top. The Wikipedia entry for this can actually be found under “racebending”, with “whitewashing” cited as being  a more archaic term. Their definition of this practice is:
“when the race or ethnicity of a character, in a story, is altered to an ostensibly more ‘palatable’ or ‘profitable’ ethnicity.”
The reason people have been asking the question as to whether or not this did in fact take place is that The Martian is a film adaptation of a novel by author Andy Weir. As such the source material is devoid of any visual aids in regards to the explicit ethnicities of its characters. Weir himself had a number of things to say about this with MTV News at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film debuted [the interview occurred before MANAA’s statement]:
In regards to writing and describing his characters’ ethnicities-
“So unless a physical description is somehow relevant to the plot, OK, you know he’s missing a leg — something like that, but unless it’s like really important to the plot then I don’t physically describe my characters at all.”
“You can imagine them however you like. Like, for instance, the ethnicity of Mark, I never told you.”
In response to criticisms of Chiwetel Ejiofor being cast as Vincent Kapoor-
“He’s an American. Americans come from lots of different sources! You can be Venkat Kapoor and black.”
In response to criticism of Mackenzie Davis being cast as Mindy Park-
“Whatever ethnicity she has, she’s an American and her family has been in America forever, which is why her first name is just Mindy, but her last name is Park. But Park is also a British surname so the casting people [could have] thought Mackenzie Davis looks like someone descended from Brits. And she did a great job! I’m certainly not complaining about anything related to casting.”
“He did admit that he’d always pictured Mindy Park as of Korean lineage, but emphasized again that he had never actually explicitly written her as Korean.”
This is all well and good, but problematic in that it doesn’t jive with an interview that took place in May of this year with the blog domesoph. When asked by blogger Sophie Milam about how he approached writing his extensive cast, Weir responded [emphasis added]:
“I didn’t set out to deliberately balance the crew. For the most part, I just wanted them each to be unique enough for the reader to tell them apart without prompting. It’s a real problem in written fiction. You don’t have the face on-screen or voice being heard to remind the audience who’s who. They need to know it immediately from the name.
So there are no two people on Hermes who are the same demographic. There’s one white American guy (Beck), one Hispanic guy (Martinez), and one German guy (Vogel). There are two women of undefined ethnicity (presumably white) but one of them is the Commander, so you won’t get them confused either. Especially since they all call her ‘Commander’.
So it wasn’t any deliberate attempt at diversity. It was really just a shortcut to making sure the reader knew who was who. You’ll find I pulled the same trick with the NASA characters: Teddy (white guy who is in charge), Mitch (white guy who isn’t in charge), Venkat (Indian), Annie (white woman), Mindy Park (Korean woman), Rich Purnell (African American).”
Now I want to be fair and admit that not every author is [or can be] Alan Moore, who has very publicly denounced all film adaptations of his own work. Weir is currently working on his sophomore novel, with The Martian making up the entirety of his current bibliography. As an author with his first-ever book being adapted by Hollwood, and with the film rumoured to be nabbing an Oscar, there are more reasons against than for when it comes to rocking the boat. So let’s discard what Weir has to say, separate from his novel, completely.
All art is open to interpretation regardless of the creator’s intent, so without Weir’s opinions here’s what we know about the characters:
- “Venkat [not Vincent, as he’s known in the film] Kapoor” is an East Indian name.
- It’s stated within the text that Vincent Kapoor is a Hindu.
- While “Mindy” is ethnically ambiguous, “Park” is the third most common Korean surname. “Park” is also an English and Scottish surname.
That being said I’m willing to make the concession that free of Weir’s intentions Mindy Park certainly could have been either White or East Asian. When it comes to Venkat Kapoor, on the other hand, most signs point towards him being South Asian, more specifically East Indian. Let’s pull up the definition for “racebending” again:
“when the race or ethnicity of a character, in a story, is altered to an ostensibly more ‘palatable’ or ‘profitable’ ethnicity.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor is an Academy Award winning actor. He’s also a Nigerian English man, part of a demographic that has not struggled in Hollywood compared to many others. Comparatively speaking I would run out of American films headlining East Indian talent before I ran out of fingers. Are Black men more profitable than Indian men? Everything I know about North America answers a resounding yes. So this is what we’re left with:
Venkat Kapoor was racebent for The Martian.
Mindy Park [given the author’s intent] was whitewashed for The Martian.
To be fair [and I think I have been thus far], East Indian actor Irrfan Khan had been in talks to play Kapoor but had to decline due to another commitment. It’s worth noting that the role had been intended for Khan, and it’s also commendable that-
The Martian Has Great Role
s for Asian s [Note the Strikethroughs, They’re Hard to See]
I’m trying to save a lot of my emotions for the latter part of this post, but I just typed “Benedict Wong The Martian” into Google Image Search and nine out of the first ten images are of Matt Damon in a space suit. In all honesty, at the time of this writing there are none, there are literally no images of Benedict Wong as he appears in The Martian. I need to take a deep breath. Sorry.
The reason I had to step back for a second there is that Benedict Wong’s role in this film is not a small one. As Bruce Ng, the director of JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] he’s responsible for ensuring that the shuttle which helps save Matt Damon’s character is built at all. Numerous times throughout the film they refer back to him, and over at /r/movies many audience members were quite taken with his performance.
Also featured in the film are Eddy Ko and Chen Shu, both Chinese actors, who play scientists at CNSA [China National Space Administration]. I unfortunately cannot place them in even the next category under Benedict Wong as they’re barely playing characters of any kind. That’s not to condemn their performances, but to say that their roles are nearly inconsequential. Yes, their help is needed in the course of the film, but they have no actual motivations, no actual reason for existing short of waiting for NASA to seek their aid.
The Martian offered up one very sizable role to an East Asian actor, and had every intention of casting a South Asian as an even more prominent character, but you know what-
The Martian Doesn’t Let Ridley Scott Off the Hook
The reason I devote a section to this topic at all is because it was brought up to me that this movie might be a reason to give Ridley Scott, of Exodus: Gods and Kings infamy, a film that I asked Christians [and really, anyone with a conscience] to avoid seeing last year, a little slack.
Once again, I am entirely willing to focus solely on the sins of 2015 and not of 2014. Though for those not in the know it is probably worth pointing out that, as the lovely poster mock-up on the right pokes fun at, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a movie that takes place in ancient Egypt and relegates all minor roles to people of colour, while allowing White talent to headline. With that out of the way, back to The Martian.
On the diversity front this is a film that gave Benedict Wong a fairly sizable role and intended to give a South Asian actor a South Asian role. It’s also a film that then gave that South Asian role to a Black man and whitewashed, depending on how you look at it, an East Asian character. So why exactly should I be cutting him any slack?
Given names like Venkat Kapoor and Bruce Ng the bare minimum expected from a casting director and anyone else involved is finding appropriate talent. You wouldn’t see a name like “Wendy Lin” and then give it to a White actor, right?Okay, any competent casting director, at least. If the best Ridley Scott et al. can do when faced with the fact that Irrfan Khan is unavailable is spring for an actor of colour who may or may not even hail from the same continent is . . . well, isn’t worth applauding. Having a South Asian character portrayed as mixed-race instead of full blooded South Asian isn’t somehow progressive when it robs a minority group of, if not a role [assuming that no other actors would have sprung for the part], the opportunity to see themselves in a big budget Hollywood movie. Which brings me to my next, and most emotional point-
I’m Tired of Being Told What to Be Angry About
Or more accurately, I’m tired of being told what I can’t be angry about. When I first read about the news over at the AV Club this was the comment at the top of the thread below the article, and the first that I read:
And I’m incensed just reading it again, and typing underneath it while it remains in my field of vision, because it smacks of the kind of thinking that urges people to be fine with Tilda Swinton playing an elderly Asian man, or with Martin Freeman potentially filling the role of a Chinese character. It says “this person is talented [in this case also: non-White]” so you should take it and thank whoever is responsible for it.” It tells me that not only am I wrong, I am spoiled and ungrateful. It feels like ordering the same thing over and over and not getting it and then, finally, being given something similar and being told to be content. And it’s not even the only comment of its kind. I would screenshot more but I refuse to put myself through that right now.
Brian Sounalath is a South East Asian actor who has been working in the industry for the past 8 years and dropped us an email about this very topic, sharing that he’s hesitant to talk about “race things on [his] social media, because then people think [he’s] this huge complainer”. This is with people who are ostensibly largely his own friends and family, which says so much about what MANAA is doing when their statements reach far and wide to complete strangers, many of whom share the same sentiment as beema up above.
And you know what, it made me realize why Phil Yu’s site is called Angry Asian Man. It finally clicked; I finally got it, It’s not even that I’m tired about being told what I should and shouldn’t be angry about, it was actually allowing myself to be angry about, well, all of it.
I can’t subscribe to idea that MANAA’s “all or nothing approach” isn’t helping anyone, because they can not and should not be silent. I won’t allow Benedict Wong’s incredible performance to blind me from seeing that, had Venkat Kapoor and Mindy Park actually been appropriately cast, this film would have passed a form of Racial Bechdel Test [again, I consider the Chinese scientists barely cyphers, given a handful of lines and barely an emotion besides]. I’m not tired, I’m sick of people saying “but what about-” to excuse behaviour that has been perpetuated since Hollywood’s inception and earlier. To be ignorant of wrongdoing is to be compliant. It says that I’m fine with every talented White actor being given the role of a racial minority be they Benedict Cumberbatch or Emma Stone and I’m not. I’m not fine with it, I’ve never been fine with it.
The Martian Was Not a Bad Movie
I don’t believe in writing a blog post without having done an appropriate amount of research, and while I wasn’t able to read the book I did see The Martian this past Tuesday. I enjoyed it. It was well-acted by all involved and a lot of fun from start to finish.
But every time I saw Mackenzie Davis onscreen I couldn’t ignore the fact that there could have been a Korean in her stead. As much as I like Chiwetel Ejiofor it was impossible for me not to hate that he was supposed to be a “Kapoor”, that they had anglicized his character’s name to make him more believable as a half-Black half-East-Indian man. I like both of these actors, and to hit that last point again I’m angry that I was unable to fully enjoy them doing what they do best.
Adherents of feminist critique have pointed out that just because you despise the Ewoks doesn’t mean you hate Return Of The Jedi, and it’s the same with all other facets of a work of art. My hating whitewashing and racebending with every fibre of my being did not make me discard The Martian and consider it a poor film, but it also did not make me like it one iota more.
So Now What?
At this point I’ve said nearly all I have to say. The Martian, Ridley Scott, and everyone involved who had the authority to make decisions are guilty of whitewashing and racebending prominent roles, keeping minority talent from filling them and minority audiences from seeing themselves on the silver screen. It’s important to point out that there are groups who are vocal, who are making their complaints heard. It’s almost equally important to note the voices in direct opposition, those who don’t want to hear it, those who at their least malicious chide us to make better use of our time.
My plea to you, whether you care about this topic, or consider me a friend, or even just want to impress that one attractive Asian person you know, I don’t care, is to share this post with someone, with anyone. Even if you don’t share the actual post, as long as you’re talking about it with people who are blind to the problem, or those who refuse to acknowledge it is one at all, that’s more than enough. If I can only speak for myself then all I can really say is that I’m angry about this, but my hope and dream is that it’s something you can be angry about as well. No change has ever occurred because of the mild irritation of thousands, but the anger of even just a few hundred? That’s an entirely different story.