Whitewashing: When Will Hollywood Learn?

By Scotti Morris

The comics about sorcerer Steven Strange are heavily influenced by Asian themes, especially Chinese and Tibetan mythological elements. Thus, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s upcoming portrayal of the lead character in a new film adaptation earned Marvel heavy criticism on the grounds of inadequately casting an actor of color to take the role. Even more recently, Marvel Studios is facing heat due to the recent casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange.

Marvel Studio’s president Kevin Fiege defended the casting choice, claiming he and other  producers “wanted to shy away from any stereotyping roles” and believed it would be appropriate for  the Ancient One to be cast as a female. But, in the comics, the Ancient One is an elderly Tibetan monk who assists Dr. Strange. Thus, many rebuke Fiege’s logic due to the fact an older Asian actress could have appropriately fit the criteria the producers used.

Yet, Marvel isn’t the only major studio facing a vitriolic response for their casting decisions. Dreamworks/Paramount Studios were reprimanded on social media over their selection of actress Scarlett Johansson for the cyborg-cop Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live action remake of the hit anime The Ghost in the Shell. The original The Ghost in the Shell of 1995 revived the cyberpunk cinematic genre while also setting a new standard for animation. Its social influence is unparalleled, but the remake elicited outcry from many fans and social media users due to the fact that Major Kusanagi is a Japanese character.

Yet, when Screencrush revealed that Dreamworks toyed with the possibility of digitally applying Eastern Asian characteristics to Johansson’s face in response to the criticism, the film received threats of boycotting over the Yellow-facing techniques considered in production.

Though the article claims that these post-production efforts were terminated, the damage had already been done.

One would presume that Hollywood would have realized the futility of whitecasting movies due to past box office flops. For instance, Joe Wright’s Pan was one of 2015’s biggest box office failures with a measly domestic gross of $35 million dollars under a $150 million dollar budget. Though the film showcases the backstory of the beloved boy-who-never-grew-up, the film could not attract an audience after massive backlash over casting white actress Rooney Mara in the role of Native American Princess Tiger Lily. Though Mara later expressed regret at accepting the role, Pan never recovered from the whitewashed casting choices.

In 2016, whitewashing has still guaranteed theatrical failures. In January, Lionsgates’ The Gods of Egypt tumbled spectacularly at the box office with a pathetic opening weekend of $14 million and an overall domestic gross of less than $30 million. The film’s poor performance is attributed to the white cast inaccurately portraying Egyptian deities and characters. Even a retroactive apology on the part of the studio and director Alex Proya couldn’t save it. Other films that have whitewashed characters of Asian descent such as Avatar: the Last Airbender, Dragonball Evolution, and Aloha flopped both critically and financially as well.

Maybe if Doctor Strange and The Ghost in the Shell follow the trend of box office failures, Hollywood will finally realize see the error of its ways (at least financially) and learn from its mistakes.

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