Several recent films featuring white actors in Asian roles have generated controversy, as critics point to the casting decisions as evidence of whitewashing.
“It's problematic,” said David Oh, a professor of media and communications at Ramapo College, “because it suggests that a story isn’t worth knowing if it’s populated with Asians and Asian Americans at the center of it.”
For example, Matt Damon recently played the lead role in “The Great Wall,” a film rooted in Chinese history and culture. Even though other members of the cast are Asian, critics say Damon’s casting reinforces the myth that only white males can be heroes.
Scarlett Johansson also landed the role of an Asian character in the upcoming adaption of the beloved Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell.” However, Johansson defended herself by pointing out how rare it is to have a female protagonist driving a franchise.
Netflix has also come under criticism for its adaptions of “Iron Fist” and “Death Note.” “Iron Fist” features a main character who is a Buddhist monk and kung-fu expert, and fans are outraged that Netflix passed up the opportunity to give an Asian actor a leading role.
The same is true for “Death Note.” Over 13,000 people have signed a petition voicing their displeasure with the upcoming American remake of the Japanese manga series. The changes include moving the setting from Tokyo to Seattle and changing characters’ names: Light Yagami and Misa Amane have become Light Turner and Mia Sutton.
Many people argue that these are adaptations being made for an American audience, so the changes being made to the cast are simply to appeal to that audience. Others say it is important to remember that American doesn’t mean white.
While the act of whitewashing may not always be outwardly racist, it does occur because of the advantages white actors have in America. In fact, the main reason that roles are given to white actors often is because they are already stars within the film industry, according to Oh.
“Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannson are cast and stories are built to include them because they have star power,” said Oh.
By casting them, directors and producers are aiming to minimize risk and attract a larger audience brought in by the big-name actors.
“Ghost in the Shell” director Rupert Sanders used this argument to defend his casting of Johansson.
“We're not making a small Japanese version of the film,” said Sanders in an interview with the Evening Standard. “We're making a global version of the film, you need a figurehead movie star.”
In the case of “The Great Wall,” Damon claimed that Asian actors weren’t even considered for the role and that the production team had planned to make his character white well before he was specifically cast for the role.
Edward Zo, an Asian actor who auditioned for the lead role in “Death Note,” has said the same was true for the Netflix adaptation and that the producers were only looking for a white actor. The lead role was eventually given to Nat Wolff of "Naked Brothers Band" fame.
“Audiences have not yet shown that they will reject movies that are whitewashed,” said Oh, “so investors will finance shows with bankable stars, and bankable stars are those who are given opportunities. Because Asian Americans aren’t seen as potentially lucrative, major talent agencies don’t represent them, so they don’t get important roles, so the system rolls on and on.”
By erasing the Asian identity of the characters in these roles, the industry is essentially erasing the rich culture they are built on as well.
“It’s important to make the movie dramatic and appealing to the audience,” said Michele Tanigaki, co-president of the United Asian Association, “but there has to be some courtesy to the different ethnicities.”
Production teams claim that they are adapting stories and characters to be more widely appealing to an American audience, but in reality, they are disregarding important parts of the background of the stories and characters.
“Directors and script writers should be more aware of the story they are portraying if they cast white actors to star in a movie that indulged in Chinese culture,” Tanigaki continued. “You lose the essence of the culture and that changes a lot of how characters and scenes are perceived.”
“The United States still needs improvement when it comes to equality among all races and ethnicities,” said Tanigaki. “We are making progress but are not quite there yet. However, there are more and more diverse casts in current shows. The next step forward is to cast a minority as the leading actors.”
“It’s important because people learn from media who belongs, what matters and who people should care about,” said David Oh. “If representation is frequently skewed, people will learn from these stories in ways that can have real consequences.”