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OPINION: Hollywood Casting Isn’t Always Whitewashing


By Cameron Hawkins

film negative
Image: Wikimedia

More and more, film has been getting unnecessarily political, and personally I am getting really tired of it.

During the 2016 Oscar season there were complaints that all the acting nominees were white, or to be more accurate, there wasn’t a single non-white. At the most recent Oscars, in February 2017, “Moonlight” won Best Picture and is the first Best Picture film that has an all African-American cast. Of course, after the Oscars concluded there were murmurs that the film only won to make up for the previous year’s “whitewashing” controversy, not because it was the best film nominated (which it was).

Now within the past year we have seen numerous controversies with film adaptations featuring white actors and actresses portraying characters of a different race. As someone who is of both Caucasian and African-American descent as well as a film fanatic, I thought I would write my two cents regarding this interesting topic.

When it comes to fictional adaptations, does it really matter what the character’s race is? I don’t think so. A lot of characters from whatever media they come from are not defined by their race. There are famous characters that have always been white. For example, Darth Vader, Batman, or Harry Potter. The hard truth is that their race does not define the character.

In “Star Wars” Anakin Skywalker could have been black, Hispanic, or Asian and it would not have affected his character in any way. Darth Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones, a black actor, but the actor who played the character on screen, David Prowse, was a white actor. More recently, Jason Momoa, who is of Hawaiian descent, was cast as Aquaman in “Justice League.” There was no controversy because of his race. A character that has existed for 75 years in comic books as a blonde Caucasian got a race change for the big screen and no one batted an eye.

Why? Because the character isn’t popular enough to society.

Imagine if Batman were portrayed black. Bruce Wayne has always been white, but he doesn’t have to be. He could be any race because it does not define his character or influence how or why he became Batman in any way. Nevertheless, there would be an uproar. Some characters are so precious to so many people.

Wally West from The Flash comics
Wally West from The Flash comics, Image: Wikipedia/George Perez

In the end though, it really doesn’t change anything.

Wally West, a character in “The Flash” comics and television show was originally white with red hair, but in recent years has undergone a race change to black. This didn’t bring much controversy to the comic community because it brought in more diversity. Some people just have a mentality that however a character was originally created that’s the way they should always be. Would seeing Batman a race other than white be weird at first? Absolutely. Does that make it wrong? No, it does not. It goes both ways.

Recently, a version of “Power Rangers” came out that was highly adapted from the original “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” television show. There was controversy regarding white actress Elizabeth Banks’ casting as the villain known as Rita Repulsa. “Power Rangers” was originally a Japanese show known as “Super Sentai” and Repulsa was based off of the main villain in the series known as Witch Bandora. It makes sense that people want the villain to be portrayed as Asian because of the show’s history, but does that bring any actual effect to the character in the film? No. Banks was cast because she was the right actress for the part, not because Hollywood is specifically trying to make all characters white.

Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell, Image: IGN

Another example is “Ghost in the Shell,” the 2017 film adaptation of the 1995 Japanese anime of the same name and in which white actress Scarlett Johannson was cast in the lead role, Major. Many people felt that because the film was based on a Japanese source the lead should be an Asian actress. The casting caused so much controversy it has likely been a negative factor in the film’s success at the box office. “Ghost in the Shell” placed third at the box office in its opening weekend, coming in at just $18.6 million. That’s just a fraction of the $110 million budget, and according to Deadline the film is now expecting to lose $60 million.

Mamoru Oshii, director of the anime, spoke about the controversy during an interview with IGN. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her,” he said. “Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

Adding on, specifically regarding Johannson’s casting, Oshii said, “I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.”

I agree. I do not think that Hollywood purposefully casts white actors to kick non-white actors to the curb. I believe they cast the best person for the role. That being said, there have been examples of ridiculous whitewash castings (Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”), however my opinion pertains to fictional adaptations specifically.

I am not trying to “defend” whitewashing, but we cannot rightfully assume that Hollywood is purposely making these casting choices for a specific motive or to push minority actors to the side without proof. I know a lot of readers are going to “get where I am coming from,” but will still disagree with me on the topic and that is fine.

Whitewashing is definitely something that is occurring in Hollywood, but to what purposeful degree I am not sure and we should not assume the worst. I understand that people want more minorities in lead roles, and for Hollywood to be respectful of original source material for adaptations. But in the end, I think with fictional adaptations the race of the actor or actress playing a specific character is irrelevant as long as race doesn’t already define the character.

Cameron HawkinsCameron Hawkins is a Journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno. He hopes to have a career in Film Journalism writing about news and reviews in the industry. He is also a saxophonist who has played for 12 years and is a member of the University of Nevada Marching Band as well as the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Music Fraternity. In his free time Cameron likes to watch movies, play video games, and read comic books.

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