Film Critic Kumari Tilakawardane takes a look at how far Hollywood has come since the controversy surrounding this year’s Oscars “whitewash”.
In case you didn’t hear – the Oscars this year were overwhelmingly white. I mean, I say this year’s… racism, discrimination and unfairness aren’t particularly new words in the Hollywood dictionary. The vast majority of mainstream Hollywood releases feature heterosexual white protagonists, most of the big ‘A-list’ stars are white, and you’ll be hard pressed to find too many non-white faces on mainstream magazine covers. A 2015 study into movies and television series from the previous year found that more than 66% of speaking characters were male, and more than 70% were white.
This year’s Academy Awards host Chris Rock dedicated the majority of his telecast to pointing out the racial discrimination in the Academy’s voting; he made jokes, barbed remarks and performed skits that were seen and discussed across the globe. It was important that someone as high profile as the host drew attention to the overwhelmingly white pool of nominees the Academy chose to honour, and the apparent discrimination against black actors and filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood. However, one of Rock’s skits in particular only served to highlight the prevalent and largely ignored discrimination against Asian actors, filmmakers and creatives. In boiling the conversation about racial discrimination down to an issue of black and white, other underrepresented ethnic groups and minorities were ignored. Or worse, mocked.
Towards the end of the show, Rock appeared to be introducing representatives from Price Waterhouse Cooper, who had tabulated the results of the votes; actually, three Asian children, dressed as accountants appeared, standing awkwardly next to Rock. Just in case you missed the subtle humour (Asians are good at maths), Rock followed it up with a joke about forced child labour in factories, just to really drive the stereotype home.
While this year’s Awards brought the issue of racism and discrimination more sharply into focus, Rock’s distasteful jokes playing on an enduring racial stereotype – even in the midst of a barrage of searing criticisms of the totally white nomination list – only serve to show that Hollywood, and the mainstream media in general, have an extremely long way to go. Hollywood has a huge problem when it comes to the casting of black actors – there are simply not enough roles created for them, and not enough black actors cast in those roles that do exist. Hollywood also has a huge problem when it comes to the casting of non-white actors in general – even in roles that were originally Asian or Native American, for example. Decisions like the one to cast Mickey Rooney as I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s are, unfortunately, not just a thing of the past.
In fact, the controversy over the issue of whitewashed casting has intensified in recent weeks. In Disney/Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One – a character who was a Tibetan mystic in the original Marvel comics. The casting was criticised widely on the internet, and led to Marvel releasing a statement denying whitewashing, noting previous Marvel films with ethnically diverse casts, and arguing that this “embodiment” of the character is Celtic.
Similarly, the release of stills from Paramount’s upcoming Ghost in the Shell have generated staunch criticism and an online petition calling for the studio to change their casting. Paramount’s film is a remake of an anime from 1995, itself an adaptation of a manga series. Both the 1995 film and the original manga were set in Japan and featured Japanese characters, including main character (to be played in the upcoming film by Scarlett Johansson), a cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi. In response to criticism over the casting of Johansson, reports emerged that the studios behind the project had actually already tested visual effects to make the white actress appear Asian. Unsurprisingly, this news did little to quell the outcry and the petition challenging the casting has now received over 100,000 signatures.
It’s not exactly a secret that Asians are underrepresented on-screen – at least half of Hollywood’s releases in 2014 failed to include any named/speaking Asian roles. Last year’s box office flop Aloha was most notable for its character Allison Ng, a half-Chinese half-Hawaiian woman who was played by Emma Stone. And it’s crucial to note that whitewashing is by no means a problem specific to the black and Asian communities: many ethnic minorities and countless actors of colour have been shut out of Hollywood’s casting calls with alarming regularity, even just in the past few years. Johnny Depp played the Native American character Tonto in 2013’s derided The Lone Ranger, Rooney Mara took on the role of Tiger Lily in Pan just last year. In 2010 Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as The Prince of Persia, and Indian-American Facebook co-founder Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Italian British actor. In 2014 renowned director Ridley Scott took whitewashing to a whole new level when all of the leading roles in his biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings were played by white actors.
Despite these (and many more) examples, there have been attempts to explain away whitewashing, and minimise the controversy. A few months ago the Coen Brothers, fresh off the release of their overwhelmingly-white Hail, Caesar! claimed both that diversity is important, and that telling a story “in the right way… might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity, or it might not”.
And then, as though there hadn’t been enough bad feeling around Ghost in the Shell already, indie screenwriter Max Landis took to Youtube to decry his own views on whitewashing, and claimed that there are “no A-list female Asian celebrities”. Not only is this argument untrue – for one, Chinese actress Bingbing Fan was the fourth-highest paid female actress last year – but it’s irrelevant and unhelpful to the problem. Superstars like Emma Stone and Johnny Depp have played whitewashed roles in films that flopped at the box office, so why should casting an “A-list celebrity” be of concern to a studio, particularly at the expense of casting an ethnically appropriate actor? Is Landis forgetting last year’s blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which soared to the top of the box office charts despite having several lesser-known actors in leading roles?
Further, even if Landis’s point were true, and the only thing holding non-white actors back from regular leading roles was ethnically-generated star-power, surely the best way to remedy that would be to give some starring roles to people of colour? In television, although there is still a disparity of representation for non-white actors and characters, the situation is arguably much better. Popular shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None and Empire all feature non-white actors, and all are doing pretty well – “A-list” talent or not.
Ultimately, arguments like Landis’s, however well-meaning, only go to highlight the depth of inequality in Hollywood, and mainstream Western media as a whole. Female actresses are paid a fraction of what their male co-stars get; female filmmakers can’t get a look-in to create art; non-white actors are shut out of roles even if they were originally created as non-white characters. If you’re not a straight, white male it’s hard to get anywhere in Hollywood. Similarly, if you’re not a straight white male chances are you’re not being represented either in front or behind the camera.