Hollywood is an endlessly incestuous industry where they will use American and British actors for pretty much everything, whether it be an Italian Priest or a black sergeant who went through a controversial pigment surgery (for those Tropic Thunder fans out there :p) to play the part. It doesn't even seem to matter to them if the actor is doing a terrible job or accent in the role in question, with such examples as Don Cheadle's attempt at a cockney accent in the Ocean's Franchise, Keanu Reeves's posh British accent in Dracula or Shia Labeouf's bizarre accent in Nymphomaniac being prime examples. But I want to talk more about race and sexism in this article, rather than shitty accents.
There are numerous examples over the years of Hollywood Whitewashing, with some classically terrible examples being Laurence Olivier donning 'blackface' for Othello, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai remake, Johnny Depp as a Native American in The Lone Ranger and Mickey Rooney putting on offensively large fake Asian teeth and accent as Mr.Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
But in this day and age it appears that at this time where minorities finally feel they have a voice, the Asian and Black communities in particular are becoming increasingly vocal regarding the issue. Some recent examples of Hollywood whitewashing which has upset people is Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in Ghost in the Shell which as a Japanese manga series was originally in the comics portrayed as a lead Asian character. Makes sense. The Asian community were therefore in uproar when Scarlett was cast in the role as they felt it should go to an Asian actress. This is totally reasonable and there is certainly something to be said about the fairly great extent of whitewashing in Hollywood. It's run by white men, so therefore they cast white men and women in the majority of the roles. But, the reason they are more inclined to do this is not just because they are more comfortable and familiar with white actors. It is also due to the simple fact that white actors are more well known, so therefore will bring in more money. And at the end of the day, sadly, that is all they care about. These days, they don't even seem to care if what they're making is good, as long as it grosses hundreds of millions worldwide. It's ruining the film industry, but that's another story for another day.
Anyway, sure you could argue that it would make more sense to cast a Japanese actress in the role of The Major (Scarlett's character). But can you name a single Japanese actress? (And no, Zhang Ziyi is Chinese). So probably not, as I can't and I work in this industry! So the studios know that casting an actress who consistently brings in huge bucks at the box-office is a far more financially viable option than casting an unknown Japanese actress (to Westerners) as the main character, despite how appropriate they may be. It's as simple as that; if they think it will make more money, then they'll do it, regardless of the consequences. And until more international actors are as famous and profitable as white ones, then things aren't likely to change.
Another recent example is Tilda Swindon in the recent Marvel mind-fuck extravaganza, Doctor Strange in which she played a Tibetan monk who is also originally a man in the comics, and Asian. This was a bit of a funny casting choice in the end, as the studio did consider Asian actresses for the role but felt for various reasons that it would be better to cast a white actress; ironically because they didn't want to be accused of racism. Swindon's casting was then widely criticised as whitewashing, which I felt was a bit unfair as the film does have a number of Asian and black actors, so is pretty diverse. Also, Tilda Swinton, besides her race and gender is pretty much the perfect casting choice in terms of her performance.
But having said that, although it may feel like Hollywood is relentlessly whitewashing, there has certainly been (when compared to the past 50 years of American filmmaking) a notable increase in diversity in Hollywood, though we obviously still have a long way to go. Aside from the gradual increase of black actors in Hollywood films in recent times (besides their appearance as token black guy who spouts stereotypical catchphrases) there has also been an increase in strong female lead character roles through actresses such as well, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain and of course the beloved Jennifer Lawrence. We didn't really have such strong roles for women in the 90's or early 2000's, or indeed before that when women were pretty much always just the love interest of the male lead, reduced to corny dialogue whose only purpose was to forward the plot. But things are getting more diverse as we become a gradually more inclusive and co-operative society (except you know, people like Donald Trump and Brexit).
We had 12 Years a Slave for example, which was helmed by a black, English director with a cast of strong black leads. However, this film would have been difficult to make with only white people due to the story, and if they had used only white actors donning 'blackface' then I have a feeling there would have been some pretty severe backlash. This gave a black director their first Oscar win for Best Picture, with the lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor also winning Best Actor at the BAFTA's. So we are clearly making some headway, albeit slowly, though their win's were probably as much to do with white guilt regarding the subject matter as much as how good their performances were.
The Oscars last year also faced a backlash due to the lack of black actors being nominated for the awards, resulting in an #oscarssowhite hashtag trending on Twitter, and for the Oscars committee to re-shuffle their board to include a few more diverse faces. However, other people pointed out that the black community didn't really have much more cause for outrage than any other communities who were similarly under-represented such as Asians or Hispanic. And if you look at the picture below, they have an Asian guy, young people and nine women! Which out of seventeen is pretty good really.
In Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated upcoming film 'Silence' about 17th Century Portuguese priests, the roles are of course all played by American and British actors (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson) equipped with phony Portuguese accents. So it's not so much as 'whitewashing' that Hollywood do as much as 'English-as-a-first-language-washing', though admittedly that title is not as catchy.
Then there is also the upcoming example of Matt Damon in The Great Wall, a fictional film about monster attacking the Great Wall of China. However, the director Zhang Yimou clarified that Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor, saying “In many ways ‘The Great Wall’ is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.”
It's not going to be a quick, easy fix as there is a fair amount of opposition from old, stubborn white men who have been brought up and shaped an industry full of their similarly coloured mates. But with minorities being able to have their voices increasingly heard, mostly online, we are certainly heading in the right direction. And at the end of the day, as always, the ball is in our court, so if we promote outrage due to whitewashing, then things will slowly start to change as they have been increasingly over the past few years, because the studios don't want to upset their customers. So let's work together and get our voices heard so that we can continue to progress towards a one people, with equality for all.
Thanks for reading,
by Gonzo World
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