Online protest against Hollywood whitewashing of Asian roles sparks diversity discussion

There are plenty of Hollywood movies causing a stir right now with eager fans looking forward to all the upcoming releases. But some films are making the news not because of their fans’ anticipation; rather, it is the anger and frustration of moviegoers over casting choices that’s garnering headlines. The live action adaptations of the popular anime Ghost in the Shell and the comic book Doctor Strange are at the center of a controversy over race and casting decisions.

Both films have cast white actors in key roles that originally had Asian origins. The decisions by the studios producing the films to not hire Asian actors to play popular characters has resulted in a backlash from many in the Asian community and others who feel the castings are yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing. Likewise, it is seen as the latest episode of Hollywood’s continued lack of racial diversity.

With recent movies such as The Last Airbender (2010), The Lone Ranger remake (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and Gods of Egypt (2015), and a slew of others, Hollywood is no stranger in casting white actors in roles originally designated for people of color.

The viral twitter trend #whitewashedOUT burst onto the virtual scene following weeks of intense debate regarding white actresses Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton both being cast as characters of Asian origin. Johansson was cast as the lead in Ghost in the Shell, despite the fact that the original character, Kusanagi, of the popular manga and anime, is Japanese. Swinton, meanwhile, will be playing “The Ancient One” in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, despite the fact that the character is Asian in the comic books of the same name. Marvel Studios, the production company for Doctor Strange, attempted to justify Tilda’s casting by declaring that Swinton’s character in the film will now be “Celtic” and no longer Asian. While Hollywood insider and veteran screenwriter Max Landis tried to claim the reason Johansson was cast is because there are no “A-list female Asian celebrities” to help make a large profit. Even with these justifications, Asian-American entertainers and others have spoken out condemning the castings.

The hashtag protest had many participants, including The Nerds of Color founder Keith Chow, YA (young adult) author Ellen Oh, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and others who wanted to bring attention to biased Hollywood casting practices and what they deem to be a persistent defaulting to white characters’ plots as the center of films and television narratives.

“The whole idea of being whitewashed goes beyond just Asian characters being played by white people. It’s the idea of centering whiteness in every story,” Chow recently told the press. “Whiteness to them is ‘colorblind.’ Everyone can project themselves onto a white guy.”

Famed Star Trek actor George Takei blasted Marvel’s excuse of Swinton being good for sales by stating on Facebook, “Let me get this straight… You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia? This back-pedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.” Takei went on to write, “All the arguments in the world don’t change the fact that Hollywood offers very few roles to Asian actors, and when one comes along, they hire a white actor to do it, for whatever the reasons… Until that mindset can change, and the studios do something to stop this practice I will continue to speak out.”

Takei isn’t the only Asian American in the industry taking a stand. Samson Syharath, an actor and producing Ensemble Member of Theatre Diaspora, spoke with People’s World regarding the controversy. Syharath said the scandal would help bring about a much-needed discussion. “The more discussion happening, the more knowledgeable everyone becomes about the matter [the better]. Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell is a form of Hollywood Whitewashing. As an actor of color, it is difficult enough to get a substantial role. Most of the roles I get called in for are stereotypical or ‘sidekick’ roles,” he explained. “The visibility of people of color in media has a direct effect on public perception. If there is not a diverse pool of relatable characters on television and film, there is a subconscious exclusion. It is set in everyone’s mind that people who look a certain way are “the other.”

To the topic of there being no A-List Asian American actors, Syharath went on to add, “How can Asian actors become known without being cast in major roles? Every actor needs to start somewhere, and without the opportunity to have that big break, actors of color are not given the chance to be recognized. They also say that white audiences won’t relate to characters of color. I believe people will relate to the humanity of the characters. It’s not about the color of their skin.”

Lily Tung Crystal is an actress who has performed in San Francisco, New York, and Shanghai. She is the founder of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, as well as the Asian American Actors Collective. Tung expressed to People’s World that “there is a huge lack of opportunity for Asian actors in the entertainment industry,” and cited how a 2014 Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film in San Diego reported that nearly three-quarters of all female characters in film were described as white and that moviegoers were as likely to see a non-human or “alien” female as they were to see an Asian female character.

Tung went on: “Casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles is not only problematic because white people are embodying Asian bodies, but because there are so few employment opportunities for actors of color. When Caucasian actors take those Asian roles, it limits even more the already small number of roles that are available. Many people say there should be color-blind casting… In a perfect world where there were true equity, that may be true. But the fact is that while Caucasian actors play roles that were originally minority roles, the opposite is almost never true. To make matters worse, non-racially specific roles are almost always with Caucasian actors, as if Caucasian were the default race.”

Tung is also about looking for a solution, but notes that it’s a “complicated problem.” “Producers need to stop reacting to unfounded financial fears” by casting exclusively white actors, according to Tung. She added that directors frequently complain that there aren’t any good actors from Asian American and Latino backgrounds, but says that is “simply untrue. Those people are out there, it just might take more time and energy to find them.” Syharath believes the answer lies in Hollywood taking a page from the success of Broadway and theatre when it comes to diversity. “Theatre companies are finally reaching out to artists of color. Broadway is thriving with shows such as Hamilton, Allegiance, and The Color Purple. Hollywood should follow suit and celebrate diversity.”

Tung believes we need to stop calling it “diversity casting” and start calling it “reality casting. “It’s not just diversity anymore, it’s reality – the reality that our neighborhoods comprise people of all races, cultures and backgrounds, and that theatre, film and TV should represent that reality.”

Photo: On left a photo of actress Scarlett Johansson in a promotional picture from the movie Ghost in the Shell, on right a photo from the anime Ghost in the Shell. In center a tweet from the online protest #whitewashedOut. AP







Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.