It’s been happening for a long time but, once again, it’s come to the fore — so-called ‘whitewashing’. This occurs when Caucasian actors (in films and in Theatre) play real or fictional characters who were originally black, or Asian. In the 2017 remake of Ghost in The Shell, for example, Scarlett Johansson plays the role of Major Mira Killian: should the Hollywood remake of the anime have used an Asian actress to play Major Motoko Kusanagi — the original character?
This question, whatever the answer, reverberates with notions of: authenticity, discrimination, racism, fairness, representation, commercialisation, marketing, and audience expectation. There’s a lot going on, which makes it an incredibly difficult question to resolve. Casting an Asian actress would have been more authentic to the original material, but as a Hollywood version of the story targeting a principally US audience it’s reasonably understandable to cast a famous American actress. What about giving the role to an Asian American actress? Regardless of the choice, the decision was a commercial one, and it seemed to work. The producers believed that Scarlett Johansson could carry the film, and would be an asset marketing it globally. While the make-up artists tuned her appearance, giving her black hair, in line with the original character, it would have been another thing to make her look Asian. This is a sensitive area, because there’s a history of Caucasian actors ‘blacking up’ or being made-up to look Asian, and the resulting performance — even with the best motives — feel patronising, insensitive, or more often, derogatory racial stereotypes. This practice disempowers black and Asian people, because they are being represented by a white person in a culture that marginalises ethnic minorities and people at the fringes. In the past, there might not have been enough Asian actors, but there’s no excuse today. Remember, it was once acceptable for men to play the female roles in theatrical productions, but this would be completely unacceptable now, unless it was a story about gender identity.
Fiction is fiction, which is to say that writers or casting directors can do what they like — it’s all made up. Hamlet can have an all-black or all-Asian crew and still make complete sense. Of course, it’s not technically historically accurate to cast black actors in those roles, but what have the audience come to see? A documentary recreating old Denmark, or a play about human relationships? It wouldn’t be historically accurate to have Indian actors making up an Ancient Greek army, but if it’s a Bollywood production targeted for distribution in India, why not? These things go both ways to some extent.
There’s been long history of ‘whitewashing’, from theatrical performances of Othello to Fu Manchu Films. There comes a point when it’s arguably a positive thing to have inclusivity and diversity as an end in itself, which means casting black and Asian actors in more interesting roles, especially leading ones. More importantly, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the kind of stories being told, especially in the UK in the 21st Century. Why don’t we have more drama set in the present, drama that celebrates and reveals the UK as it is today, drama that incorporates an ethnic mix, rather than a succession of period dramas personifying a weird notion of Englishness that feels stuck in a fantasy version of the past, and completely disconnected from life today.
Recently, Ed Skrein dropped an offer to play the role of a Japanese-American character in an upcoming Hellboy film. In other instances, non-white actors are simply erased from a script and replaced with a similar-but-white character. In Exodus: Gods and Kings white actors play Ancient Egyptians, no different to the glory days of Hollywood with films like, The Conquer (1956) featuring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. This kind of ‘whitewashing’ recreated a whole world in the image of America. Even today European films and Television drama is remade by US studios in the hope of making it less foreign, and more familiar to an American audience — The Killing, The Office, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, Apocalypto (2006) features non-white actors who don’t even speak English dialogue. It’s brilliant entertainment because it tells a human story in a powerfully emotional and visually compelling way.
It’s time for storytellers to have a rethink.