With Doctor Strange, on the other hand, that anticipation was not present at all. Last June I covered the news that Tilda Swinton was in talks to play the Ancient One, the title character’s mentor, in “Celebrity Blind Spots and Fixing Racist Narratives [By Making Everyone White]“. The gist of that post was how, in an effort to be more “progressive” filmmakers have been choosing to “fix” problematic minority characters by simply casting them with white talent. That’s as opposed to simply amending what made them so racist and stereotypical to begin with.
At that point in 2015 Swinton starring in the film had not yet been confirmed, and absolutely nothing had been mentioned about the character of Wong, Doctor Strange’s manservant in the source material. With Benedict Cumberbatch already locked into the role it was a magical time in which there was still the possibility of Marvel releasing a movie with two prominent Asian characters.
Look, my hopes were never particularly high that Swinton wouldn’t land the part. As soon as it was announced she was in talks for the role support began pouring in. That she was a woman in her 50s in a genre that has helped shine a spotlight on men of all ages and women of a very particular age was laudable to many. The thing is, the optics are so bad.
I don’t think there’s anyone here who’s unfamiliar with the term “whitewashing” at this point.
It’s been a frequent topic of conversation here on Culture War Reporters, and while certainly not a new issue, it has been gaining wider and wider attention in recent years…
Most recently, the problem reared its ugly head in the form of Scarlett Johannson being cast in the live-action remake of anime classic Ghost In A Shell. Once again we’re seeing a traditionally non-white (in this specific case, Japanese) role being given to a white actor out of fear that audiences won’t watch movies with non-white leads. And if that were the only issue, I might have stuck with my usually political tirades and left this topic alone. But in the past few days, a shocking development has emerged in the story. Allegations have surfaced that the remake’s producers (and I quote) “Tested Visual Effects That Would Make White Actors Appear Asian“.
Or, as my best friend and this blog’s editor recently put it on Facebook:
“We think so little of you that we’d consider changing a White person’s appearance before entertaining the thought of casting an actual Asian.”
So yeah, I’m feeling compelled to write about this…
And let me tell you what really convinced me to submit the following rant. Continue reading →
Last Friday was such an outpouring of emotions [alongside a fair amount of research] that even with roughly 2,700 words there was bound to be something I missed. While I had initially planned on making room for it, an omission was made starkly apparent to me once I began sharing the post. As those of you who read it [and you should, before continuing on with this one] it ended with a call to action: kickstarting the discussion about diversity and representation through asking others to read what I’d written [or however else they felt led].
That’s a risky thing to ask of anyone, for obvious reasons.
One of my friends shared the post on Facebook, and was immediately faced with another friend of theirs who had an issue with a small section that I’ve since amended. Here it as it was originally written:
“Chiwetel Ejiofor is an Academy Award winning actor. He’s also a Black [not African American] man, part of a demographic that has not struggled in Hollywood compared to many others.”
Going back you’ll notice that it now refers to Ejiofor as being “Nigerian English”, which is of course much more accurate. The issue that the person had with the original was that by going so far as to state that other actors were “Asian” and even “East Indian” I was snubbing Ejiofor’s own background. I was even accused of doing racebending of my own by overlooking this fact. Continue reading →
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.”
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.”
While not a direct quote, MTV News also shares how Weir envisioned Park while writing the novel:
“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.”
“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.
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.
I don’t normally get that angry about things. Disappointed, sure. Upset, often enough. But really, truly angry? That emotion is normally reserved for pure, undistilled racism.
Yesterday I wrote about the production history of Red Dawn, and mostly talked about how the plot was immensely improbable and how the film industry is all about money, et cetera. What I did not at all dwell on was the potential of the film to bring out racism in people, similar [but not at all comparable] to the abuse of Middle Eastern Americans after what happened on 9/11.
On Facebook Racebending.com directed me to Tumblr user manilaryce, who compiled a number or racist tweets by people who had just watched Red Dawn. I have embedded the image below and on the right.
The following are a few of the tweets that particularly stood out to me:
Kinda wanna kill some Asians right now and defend the homeland, thank you Red Dawn for sparking some patriotism in me
The only reason Im going to see red dawn is cause there’s sexy ass guys running around with guns killing Asians my type of movie;)!
I now hate all Chinese, Japanese, Asian, Korean people. Thanks. #reddawn #amazingmoviedoe
Red dawn was sickkk..just another reason why to hate asians.
One of the tweets, by @elysse223, reads “I usually love Asians, but in Red Dawn I found them terrifying.” After reading that I almost immediately felt worse, like both me and everyone else like me had been transformed into inhuman movie monsters.
The only consolation I can take in all this is that the film is being almost universally panned. Liam Lacey, reviewing the film for The Globe and Mail, says “Red Dawn panders to the worst kind of racist and jingoist impulses, though the movie is so preposterously insincere, it feels like those adjectives should be in air quotes.” Over at Indiewire Gabe Toro describes the film as “stitched together with scotch tape and falling apart at the seams, letting casual racism and misanthropy to spill out the sides.”
I honestly don’t have a lot to say except that I’m angry, hurt, and somewhat unsurprised that this is what audience members all over America are choosing to take away from this movie. I am Asian and I am not evil. I do not want to take over America. I do not want to ever feel like this:
EVAN: Today’s topic is something that I hold very near and dear to my heart. Years of research on the topic has made me witness to all of the arguments that can be used against needing to have racially accurate casting, and because of this I’m going to propose something a little different
EVAN: That I switch sides for this conversation, and speak out against it.
GORDON: Intriguing. Mind starting us off with the first salvo?
EVAN: Statement: Racially accurate casting is not important. The most talented actor should be the one who gets the role.
GORDON: Doesn’t appearance play a key role in what makes an actor good? Peter Dinklage is good, but you wouldn’t really find him believable playing Abraham Lincoln or Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
EVAN: In this case his stature, not his race, is what would keep him from playing either role in a convincing manner.
GORDON: But isn’t that essentially the same issue? Imagine the great Denzel Washington playing Lincoln- you’d be sitting there the entire time, no matter how much of a powerhouse Washington would be, taken out of the film because you have to deal with a black guy playing a white guy during the height of the civil war.
In any piece of film where you’re expecting realism, you’re going to expect the actors to conform to the styles and facts of the time. If you portray Georgia in the 1960s, you’re obviously not going to have a largely black cast portraying the upper class or if you were to set the scene in early 1900s Ghana you wouldn’t have a cast comprised of Caucasians. It wouldn’t make sense, no matter how good they are.
EVAN: If anything, Cloud Atlas at least proves that a talented actor can portray whoever they like, given an adequate amount of makeup. Halle Berry plays a Korean Man in the film, and does so in a convincing fashion that doesn’t at all take viewers out of the film in the least.
GORDON: I haven’t seen that film, so I can’t speak to the use of the actors for the parts they play. From my understanding that was a work of fantasy (or science fiction, I’m only going off what I can gather from the trailers). And in one or two movies, it’s probably not a big deal. After all, Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan.
But imagine this applied to each and every movie, it simply wouldn’t work. Realism would deteriorate- and this would be especially detrimental in a film trying to deal directly with race relations.
EVAN: I personally feel that allowing any race to play any other speaks much more in terms of race relations. That’s a world where colour is a non-issue because it shouldn’t be.
EVAN:I’m dying, Gordon. My life force is seeping out of me.
GORDON: Try to stick with it…
GORDON: And while it’s true that race ought to be a non-issue, that’s simply not how things are or have been in the past. Using black actors to play black characters and white actors to play white characters is fundamental to demonstrating past inequity and injustice with American racism and segregation. And that’s just one element.
Let’s talk about Indians playing Arabs. It happened in Lost and it happened in Community (with multiple actors), but Arabs look nothing like Indians. Indian actors are used simply because they fit the stereotype of what most people think an Arab looks like. It perpetuates an inaccuracy.
EVAN: Isn’t the fact that the role is an Arab important a large enough step? This is a minority with a major role on a TV show, and an opportunity for minority actors to step up, which they have in both cases.
GORDON: Barring Monk and Arrested Development, when’s the last time you saw an Arab actor? I’m not trying to argue against Indian actors, or actors of Indian heritage getting roles, but for the purpose of portraying the world as it is (or at least with some realism) we should have actors with some vague resemblance to the people they’re portraying on film.
After all, would you not be thrown off by guys with German accents playing French resistance fighters during WWII?
EVAN: If they had German accents then they simply wouldn’t be right for the role, which brings me back to my first point.
GORDON: Which, by proxy, brings us back to my first response. Ethnicity (depending on the situation) is just as valid an element of a guy’s candidacy for a role dealing directly with ethnicity as accents, or height, or any other factor (actual talent, of course, being the most important).
Vincent Cassel should probably not play Malcolm X. Adrien Brody should probably not play the Queen of England, though that would be pretty funny.
EVAN: If we’re going to stick with believability, than why is it so important that Indians not play Arabs? No one has ever made a big deal out of this, so clearly people believe that they are what their role calls them to be-
Likewise a Korean can to play a Chinese person can play a Japanese person. Audiences can’t tell the difference and believe that they are whatever the role is, and that’s okay.
GORDON: But Koreans do not look Chinese, Chinese people don’t look Japanese, and Arabs and Indians certainly don’t look like each other. The only reason this happens is because most people either don’t know (partly due to this inaccurate casting) or don’t care (in other words, all non-whites are basically one homogenous mass.
If all your life, you had seen black men and been told “these are Uzbekistanis,” then you’d go your whole life simply assuming that Uzbekistanis are, in fact, indiscernible from guys from Benin.
Your ignorance should not dictate which actors get which parts. Further, no Uzbekistan could really ever get a chance to play and Uzbekistani because of the years of misinformation.
EVAN: But there is a huge difference between a black person and an Uzbekistani. The examples I made have similarities that the example you used clearly does not.
To be such a stickler for accuracy is the other extreme, and just as wrong. You wouldn’t get someone with mental problems to accurately portray a character with mental problems, that just doesn’t make sense. Race should matter if it is noticeable, and like I said in the case of shows like Lost it is not.
EVAN: The logic above was used against me by someone in a thread on Reddit You can check out our exchange here.
GORDON: Granted, my example was extreme, but that doesn’t change the point. Even though a Thai guy and a Japanese guy share more similarities than a Beninese guy and an Uzbekistani guy, there are still distinct differences between people from Thailand and people from Japan.
With regards to being a stickler- I admit, as I have previously, that you don’t have to have an exact replica of the character you’re trying to portray. Jet Li, I imagine, is doing pretty well for himself, and I still wouldn’t doubt his ability to portray a poor man very well. However, while you don’t need to be point for point, you do need to have some general similarity. That’s why we don’t have Emma Stone portraying Fidel Castro.
EVAN: I feel like the extremeness of your examples is damaging your point. If we’re sticking with race we should do that, and not bring in gender.
GORDON: It’s to demonstrate the underlying point in all of this: Verisimilitude. Realism. Accuracy.
EVAN: And since you said “you don’t have to have an exact replica of the character you’re trying to portray” why isn’t it okay to have Naveen Andrews play Sayid Jarrah on Lost?
GORDON: But the distinction is great enough. The accent is Indian, not Iraqi. Naveen does not look Iraqi. When an actor neither looks nor sounds like the character he is meant to portray, we have a problem.
EVAN: So if Jarrah had managed to sound Iraqi, would that have helped?
GORDON: It would’ve added to the realism and accuracy, yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s very clearly Indian, not Arab.
EVAN: Clear to a very select few. As mentioned, people didn’t seem to notice for the most part.
GORDON: Clear to a very select few. As mentioned, people didn’t seem to notice for the most part.
Most people don’t know what an Arab looks like. Do they know that Monk is Lebanese? That Cousin Maeby is Iraqi? Most do not. Ignorance is not an excuse for inaccurate casting.
EVAN: And that brings our exhausting exchange to an end. Trying to argue for something I so strongly disagree was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. I hope that in reading this you were able to see the holes in my argument and the truth in Gordon’s.
The past few paragraphs alone have had the same effect on Evan as that life-sucking device in the Princess Bride. Commend him for biting the bullet.
And as for our discussion next time, your options are: What do we make of the upcoming Star Wars sequel?
EVAN: And. . . how about . . . How much artistic merit is there in a show like Adventure Time?
GORDON: I like it.
And to our beloved and devoted followers (who would organize into a vicious and unholy army of darkness if we ever were to ask it of ’em), feel free to suggest your own topic down in the comments section.