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Big Names and Whitewashing in Cinema

A few recent events got me thinking about cinema industry and the demand for “big names”, and how this is frequently used to justify Hollywood’s whitewashing tendencies.

The first event is a personal story.

From actors to writers to directors, I have several friends that struggle to make a name in this industry while living in a country where local TV and cinema receive very little financial or cultural investment. These friends often don’t get better positions in their fields of choice because any opportunity for funding require big names, more famous people or more impressive curriculums. It happened again this week, and it always makes me upset. You know what would help my friends have bigger names? Be given those positions.

It’s the catch-22 everyone becomes familiar with sooner or later: to get the job you need experience, to get experience you need a job first. I understand the economic reasons behind this, because people want to invest their money and resources in something that will return it. It sounds like a safer bet to go for a person that has proven themselves before than to assume the beginner is as talented as they claim to be.

Except you could simply judge this beginner based on the potential of their project or their auditions or whatever selection you choose, instead of placing so much weight on the name. Almost every famous actor has at least one questionable movie on their filmography, almost every good writer or director was involved in a flop of some kind. Big names in a project don’t ensure its success, and while I’m certain you can find people with a flawless IMDb profile, those are exceptions and not the rule.

When cinema industry keeps throwing the ball to the same players, we end up with a bazillion movies starring the same people every year while other equally talented actors struggle for a chance. We end up with thousands of movies that are basically the same story told again.

This brings me to the second recent event:

jennifer-lawrence-mulan

This is thankfully fake news, but the internet went bonkers anyway. More than the usual “people believe in anything they read” speech, what I find fascinating is that we reached a point where this piece of absurdity can actually pose as real news. Think about it: Jennifer Lawrence is a talented actress, but she has no place playing a Chinese character that saves China in a Chinese legend. She’s not Chinese; she’s not even east-Asian, and she certainly doesn’t pass as such. It’s like replacing Mulan with Cinderella and expecting nobody would notice.

What has Hollywood done before that would make us believe in such a sloppy casting?

whitewashing

Hm, I see. But hey, artists of color are vocal about their rights and the cry for diversity is stronger than ever, so I think Hollywood learned their lesson, right?

upcoming-whitewashing

Hm, I see.

Mind you that those movies are just a few examples that I came up with off the top of my head; there are many, many more. So when fake news say Jennifer Lawrence will be Mulan, I don’t really blame people for believing it, and reacting with anger, sadness and frustration.

I wrote about the importance of fiction and representation before and other writers here have great pieces about coding characters or the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. Whitewashing happens when a white actor is cast as a non-white role. It’s bad enough that we always give opportunities to the same group of people, but it becomes a bigger problem when we take away opportunities that would logically go to a marginalized group. Despite, you know, this group already having their access denied to roles that could logically go to anybody.

Is your heart broken yet?

Is your heart broken yet?

But hey, let’s not judge people behind those movies before we learn what some of them have to say:

I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up. —Ridley Scott, director of Exodus: Gods and Kings (x)

_

From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Benetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, “Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.” —Ari Hendel, co-writer of Noah (x)

_

I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world. That’s why I say the international approach is, I think, the right approach to it. —Steven Paul, producer of Ghost in the Shell (x)

Hm, I see. Where do I begin?

White people are not default. They’re not stand-ins for all people, while people of color are “other”. Every character, if well-written, can have relatable experiences and it’s racist to assume people will only care about a protagonist or ensemble if they’re white. What draws my attention in a movie is not diversity because I see diversity in my life every day. The absence of diversity, however, gives me this eerie feeling that the universe where this movie happens has been through some sort of ethnic cleansing nobody is talking about.

To quote Aziz Ansari (the entire piece is worth your time):

Here’s a game to play: When you look at posters for movies or TV shows, see if it makes sense to switch the title to “What’s Gonna Happen to This White Guy?” (“Forrest Gump,” “The Martian,” “Black Mass”) or if there’s a woman in the poster, too, “Are These White People Gonna Have Sex With Each Other?” (“Casablanca,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Notebook”). Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The “everyman” is everybody.

Another common excuse for whitewashing is needing “big names” for Economic Reasons™. As much as I understand that cinema is not just art and needs money to keep the party going, a little examination shows me how flawed this excuse can be.

First, big names don’t prevent a project from flopping, just as you can cast fresh faces and have incredibly successful movies. The Star Wars franchise is one of the best counter-examples. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer were relatively unknown before Star Wars: A New Hope, as was Hayden Christensen before Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones, or Daisy Ridley and John Boyega before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Chris Hemsworth wasn’t a huge name before Thor, nor Hugh Jackman before X-men, at least outside of theater (Jackman’s case is interesting because X-men came in a time when comic book movies were a huge risk). Leonardo DiCaprio was mostly a promise before his big break in Titanic. Avatar cost the GDP of a small country, had Sam Worthington as the main character, and was still a huge financial hit (even if that’s bizarre in retrospect). And Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in United States, with a Chinese cast, a Chinese story, and dialogues in mandarin.

You can argue that many of those movies are franchises or adaptations, thus already have a fandom and are theoretically less likely to flop (spoilers: not true). But isn’t Ghost in the Shell a franchise? The Last Airbender? Prince of Persia? Dragon Ball? Aren’t Pan or Noah adaptations? So why can’t you give this chance to an actor that actually fits the role? Ffs, the lead actors in Dragon Ball and The Last Airbender were not even “big names”; what argument there is for whitewashing here? If you’re going for an unknown actor anyway, why not an Asian actor?

So I don’t get it. I don’t get how Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott can’t cast Egyptian actors in Exodus, even tough he did cast a then-unknown Sigourney Weaver as the lead character in Alien, one of his first projects. I don’t get how Scarlett Johansson’s name is not big enough for a Black Widow solo movie, but is big enough for Ghost in the Shell. I don’t get why sometimes you need a “big name” and sometimes you don’t, but big names are suspiciously evoked to justify whitewashing.

My favorite part is that those whitewashed movies I mentioned above were all very unpopular with critics and audience alike. So having big names or unknown actors doesn’t mean anything for the success of your movie, but whitewashing is sure a risky trend. Not that I think those movies failed because of the whitewashing (though that certainly helps), but that both the whitewashing and the flop came from fundamentally misunderstanding the story or its characters.

Quoting Ming-na Wen:

“It’s been very interesting, the last couple of years, to see this new trend happening in Hollywood (…) where there’s been several incidences where characters that were specifically Asian is being given to caucasian actors. And that’s astounding to me because on the one hand I understand about economics and about needing to make money and needing to have the big names, but if it’s not serving the story, then you are not serving the entertainment value of that story. And sometimes they cast the whitest of caucasians! (…) Ghost in the Shell was a very specific Japanese anime character with a Japanese name. And I know she’s a cyborg. However, it’s a Japanese cyborg. So, I don’t know, I’m really hoping that Hollywood is listening and realizing that we aren’t the timid Asian-Americans anymore, that we do speak up now. That we do have a voice. (…) There are a lot of big name stars on Asia, so they could’ve plucked any of them. Or give us the chance. If Asian-Americans don’t have the chance to star in films and television roles, how are they going to become big names? It’s a catch-22.”

I really don’t buy the excuse that there are not enough talented actors from a certain group. There are several talented professionals out there, some more famous than others. A few roles may require more effort to find the perfect actor, sure, but it’s the cinema industry’s job to do it. We’re not giving rich people even more money because we want to see the same old faces again, we want the best damn stories you can tell. If you can’t find the perfect Japanese or Japanese American for Ghost in the Shell because Rinko Kikuchi is busy or something, simply an Asian actress would be helpful. But not this.

We have to be careful not to reduce ethnicity to external appearance, though, because in reality is so much more than that. Aziz Ansari again, on that same piece:

These days, Indian people, real Indian people, pop up way more in film and television, but fake Indians are still around more than you think. I loved The Social Network, but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, The Martian was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin. (The Indian actor Irrfan Khan was reportedly in talks to take the role, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.)

My favorite part is the real Divya Narendra’s reaction to all this:

divya-narendra

In the same route, I love Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, but I wonder if he was the best option to Pablo Escobar in Narcos — he was even widely mocked here in Brazil for his obviously-Brazilian accent. Moura is a great actor, but couldn’t they find a Colombian actor for the role? Did they try? I don’t wanna sound nitpicky with all this, and of course any Latino actor would be better than whitewashing the role, but I keep thinking that if a Brazilian character was adapted and an Argentinean or Chilean actor got the part, I would have felt a bit cheated.

I know that casting is hard and it’s not just about ethnicity or race. You have to find somebody that looks the part, that gives you the right feel, that can actually bring this character to life, that has a good chemistry with your ensemble… There’s a lot to be considered. But when you call for a “caucasian” actress to play a character described as having “olive skin” and “straight black hair”, you’re kinda not even trying.

Picture unrelated.

Picture unrelated.

I focused this piece on whitewashing, but it’s hardly the only way Hollywood harms marginalized groups. Jen Richards spoke recently on the dangers of casting cis men to play transgender women (it’s on her twitter too). And when people do get opportunities, they are not allowed to fail, because otherwise it becomes an argument for “see? We can’t make movies with [insert group here] because they don’t sell”. As Kimberly Peirce says:

I have a huge social responsibility. I have to stay on budget and be on time to make great entertainment and make profit, because that’s my job. But I also know if one of us were to screw up — and we don’t, because that’s the thing, right — it does cause [a response of], “Well, it’s a woman.”

The hoax of Jennifer Lawrence as Mulan only works because it fits a narrative we see too often and we’re all sick of. Hopefully, the reaction to this and other whitewashed movies will pressure Disney into casting a Chinese, Chinese-American or at least Asian-American actress for the role. I’m not too confident, but a girl can dream. The new Mulan doesn’t need to be a big name before the movie, because all big names start somewhere.

And because I can’t possibly finish this piece without mentioning Constance Wu:

constance-wu-the-great-wall

I couldn’t have said it better.


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Priscilla is a Brazilian writer, art student, psychologist, feminist and fangirl. Sometimes too passionate about stuff.

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