Legendary Pictures provoked outrage when the trailer for the upcoming film The Great Wall was released. Despite the film taking place in eleventh century China the protagonist, portrayed by Matt Damon, is white. The Guardian published an article by Julie Carrie Wong titled “Asian Americans decry ‘whitewashed’ Great Wall film starring Matt Damon”. Wong called the film “the latest example of Hollywood putting a white person in a role that should go to a person of colour”.
This is not an isolated incident of a production casting a white person in a role available or even better suited for a person of colour. A substantial amount of films have come under criticism recently for whitewashing, including films such as Gods of Egypt (February 2016), and Doctor Strange (November 2016).
Whitewashing refers to when a character is a person of colour but is instead played by a white perfomer. Dr Chris Broodryk of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Drama said that the systemic nature of whitewashing originates from the start of American film production in the use of white actors in blackface to portray black characters, and “from there, many of the systemic problems in racial representation in American cinema are still quite visible”.
Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, was read as a person of colour with the author telling Entertainment Weekly “[The setting] is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing”. The casting of Jennifer Lawrence was met with mixed reactions from some fans and received further criticism when the casting call was revealed to have only asked for a Caucasian actress.
Most recently there has been criticism of Scarlett Johansson playing Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of the anime Ghost in the Shell despite the character being of Japanese descent. Further outrage was sparked when it was revealed by ScreenCrush that CGI had been tested in preproduction to make the actors appear “more Asian”. The topic was the focus of an entire episode of Aziz Ansari’s series Master of None and formed a segment on the satirical news programme Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Motivations for casting white actors instead of people of colour include finance and talent. Director Ridley Scott defended the primarily white cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings, led by well-known actor Christian Bale, despite its setting in ancient Egypt by saying he would not have got his film financed if he had cast a person of colour. Scott was criticized for this viewpoint by Medium writer David Dennis Jr, who called the director’s choices “cinematic colonialism”.
The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity found that only 28.3% of speaking characters were from under-represented racial and ethnic groups in 414 films, television series and digital episodes in 2014 and 2015. The author, Professor Stacy L. Smith, said, “This is no mere diversity problem. This is an inclusion crisis … It is clear that the ecosystem of entertainment is exclusionary.” Whitewashing contributes to a lack of roles for people of colour and a loss of representation that is already limited and possibly stereotyped. Dr Broodryk said that the misrepresentation and loss of representation in whitewashing “are interwoven like [strands of DNA]”. Dr Broodryk also said that one of the greatest consequences of Hollywood whitewashing is “an overall poverty of the imagination and specifically of a politic al imagination.”
However, representation in Hollywood is gradually improving. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members vote on Academy Award winners, have had a more diverse membership intake since June 2016. An improvement since the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that was trending during award season earlier that year. Actors of colour were nominated in all six leading actor categories for the 2016 Emmy Awards. Hidden Figures, the biographical drama film bringing attention to the female African American mathematicians that helped NASA send John Glenn into space, is in theatres and is nominated for 69 awards.
What happens on the global stage is influenced by audience participation. The entertainment industry is a stage where any member of the global population can be represented so that history has no opportunity to write them off or white them out.
Photo: The Movie Network.