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Article – Colour Me Blind – Hollywood’s Dangerous Whitewashing Trend

 

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Posted April 27, 2016 by

 
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Hollywood’s Dangerous Whitewashing Trend

‘Doctor Strange’ has finally released a teaser trailer and it has received a fair amount of backlash as a result. The Ancient One, a character that was canonically Tibetan, is being played by Tilda Swinton – whatever excitement people had about a formerly male character being played by her (something she’s done several times in her career) was negated by the fact that the studio essentially erased most Asians from the film. The trailer doesn’t actually show us any prominent Asian characters, and the only known one we’ve heard about so far is Wong (played by Benedict Wong), whose character has historically been… the manservant.

Hollywood’s Dangerous Whitewashing Trend

You would think that when the studio has already taken a step to move away from the limitations of their source material, they would try a little harder and cast a number of Asians in a story about ‘Asian’ culture.

I think the double-whammy of this news and the first images of Scarlet Johansson in the adaptation of the beloved Japanese story ‘Ghost in the Shell’ has been one too many for viewers around the world. Read these excellent articles from Media Diversified and The Mary Sue for more enlightenment.

Till last year, I didn’t think much about colour-blind casting – well, I’d probably never heard about it either. It’s come in to prominence as more and more writers have brought Hollywood’s love for whitewashing to the fore. Whitewashing, essentially erasure of non-white ethnicities, is even worse than stereotyping, which at least allows you to see your ethnicity on screen, not that it makes stereotyping any better.

I don’t know what other people think when they read the words colour-blind casting, but what I see is a film/ television show which has every ethnicity, gender and orientation represented. I can see an adaptation of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ starring Alexander Siddig as Antonio, Ruby Rose as Bassanio and Laverne Cox as Portia – crazy, right? Or something equally nutso for an ‘X-Men’ reboot (wait, are my fantasies showing?). Why not? That’s the world we live in, one where people are vocal about their identities and demand to be visible in popular media.

Reading the cast list for the new ‘The Magnificent Seven’ film is refreshing – not that I’m likely to watch it – but it’s noticeable how the film is littered with a diverse cast of actors. There’s Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, Byung-hun Lee and even Matt Bomer (who is openly gay). I’m sure everyone but Pratt will die by the end of the film (this is a re-imagining, after all), but it’s a real improvement from the 1960’s re-imagining that starred mostly white actors.

magnificent seven

There have been far clearer and better-researched articles on the merits and de-merits of colour-blind casting. For one, many commentators have remarked that colour-blind casting means characters of colour do not explore their own heritage and history, which tows the line of Hollywood’s erasure of non-white history. This is a valid point, but that would mean pretty much no black actor would be able to play a role that wasn’t directly tied to their history.

I, for one, am completely for casting the right actor in the right role, irrespective of their gender/race/orientation. Of course, left in Hollywood’s hands all the roles would then go to Scarlet Johansson and Channing Tatum. Talented they might be, but even they cannot be Japanese. Oh wait!

Growing up, diversity in media wasn’t a problem for me. I grew up constantly seeing people of my nationality/ethnicity in films, TV and music videos with Bollywood and Tollywood (the Bengali film industry) in the foreground and the background; the dichotomy of watching only white faces in Hollywood films didn’t strike me until much later. Whether I actively watched these films or not, the posters, trailers and newspapers were still filled with people like me.

Not any more, of course. The more global your outlook, the more narrow the output. Nowadays finding an Indian-origin actor on screen is limited to Irrfan Khan (he’s apparently in Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ now), and when he’s off the table, they’ll just pick the next person of colour on the list (still looking at you ‘The Martian’; I will never get over casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as an Indian character).

However, there are a few positives out there, and I’d like to see more of that. Look at the cast of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ – it has a black stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a Latino pilot (Oscar Isaac), not to mention a female in the lead. Either of Boyega or Isaac’s roles could have, and probably would have, gone to white actors, but the studio chose a different way. I have mentioned earlier how the studio could have tried even harder. I’m hoping in the next few years they will.

finn and poe star wars

It’s come to such a point that it’s uplifting to see that the rather awful ‘Shadowhunters’ adaptation on Netflix has one Mexican-Lebanese actor (Emeraude Toubia), a black actor (Isaiah Mustafa) and another Chinese actor (Harry Shum Jr.) among the leads, with other diverse actors in recurring roles. While Magnus Bane was written as Asian in the books (albeit as part-Indonesian), Luke Garroway has always been white (and there was a fair amount of outrage when the show made him otherwise) and the entire Lightwood family was also read as white, which makes their mixed look on the show a welcome departure. But that’s one tween show, what about all the others? We can do better, surely!

Diversity is most notable on television. In the first season of ‘How to Get Away with Murder’, the majority of the characters could have been of any colour, but the showrunners chose diversity over ease. The second season has since capitalised on their diversity, but what struck me the most was how often the guest stars were also actors of colour, and more importantly, women of colour.

The conversation about women of colour and their lack of on screen space has been raging for a while. I cannot stress enough how disturbing the lack of diverse women in the media is. It’s almost as if Hollywood casts any woman in a role just to tick a box, but doesn’t try hard enough to pick from a wider pool of talents. Most YA adaptations have women in the lead but none of them are anything but white.

The most diverse cast of women we get is on ‘Orange is the New Black’, but even there the main character is white (it is based on a true story though and they do utilise Piper’s privilege for narrative purposes) but apart from that I’m struggling to think of any women of colour in prominent roles, not ‘best friend’ roles, in film or television recently that aren’t a Shonda Rhimes production. Even the excellent ‘Jessica Jones’ has two white women in the lead. Would it have been so strange to have Trish, or even Jessica, played by a woman of colour? After all, if a Tibetan can be played by Tilda Swinton, surely the other way around is also possible?

OITNB

The argument is often that inserting a black actor in a film is tokenism. But, that’s exactly the problem. We don’t need just one token black actor to tick the diversity box, we need a range of actors, from across Asia, the sub-continent, South America, actual actors from African countries (not African Americans putting on an accent) and Middle Eastern actors (though not only in the roles they get nowadays). And these actors should be playing characters that are real, not white America’s idea of what non-white people are like (which is always wrong!). We live in a global world; it’s time our media looked like it.

 

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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
@EnsignLestat58
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