White Actors in Asian Roles — Not Just Ghost in the Shell

Posted on April 9, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Copyright DreamWorks 2017

The casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” is just the most recent “whitewashing” that has created controversy and played at least a contributing factor to the poor results at the box office. Audiences have understandably objected to having white actors play Asian characters. It might be different if it ever worked the other way, if actors of color were cast in roles written for white actors. But with so few explicitly Asian characters in movies and so few Asian actors being cast in lead roles, it is especially troubling. To make matters much worse (SPOILER ALERT) the cybernetic characters played by Johansson and white actor Michael Carmen Pitt are both supposed to be Japanese humans who now have white-featured robot “shells” or bodies.

This is just one of many examples in current and past productions. Asian characters have been played by white actors for decades, including Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Warner Oland, Peter Lorre, and Mickey Rooney. More recently, Cameron Crowe was sharply criticized for casting Emma Stone in “Aloha” as a woman with some native Hawaiian heritage.

In the LA Times, Jen Yamato and Justin Chang wrote about this issue:

Chang: We seem to have fallen into a dispiritingly familiar pattern where Hollywood-goes-East blockbusters are concerned, and it usually starts with the announcement of some fresh casting outrage: Tilda Swinton enlisting as a Celtic version of a Tibetan mystic in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” or Matt Damon being called in for white-hero duty on “The Great Wall” (a China-U.S. co-production, incidentally).

From there, the woker-than-thou factions of the press and public react with unsurprising anger. The marketing campaign becomes a passive-aggressive exercise in damage control. The movie is released, and the casting is duly dubbed either the worst thing ever or a complete non-issue. And neither reaction, I think, really gets at the more complicated truth of the matter….I liked Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” just as I liked Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” And I was perfectly fine with Damon in “The Great Wall,” in which he’s not really a white savior at all, and is in fact amusingly upstaged by director Zhang Yimou’s make-China-great-again production design.

As she demonstrated in “Lucy” and the masterful “Under the Skin,” Johansson can be a mesmerizing screen presence, with the kind of otherworldly aura that naturally lends itself to science fiction. All of which is to say: It’s possible to admire a performance while still acknowledging the ways in which it’s — to use a word I loathe, but sometimes there’s no alternative — problematic.

Yamato: It’s one thing for a film or television show (see Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and Netflix’s upcoming Americanized “Death Note”) to be problematic. It’s more insulting for filmmakers — and the stars whose white faces are plastered on posters and billboards in front of exotic Asian scenery — to ignore the damage their failures have wrought. That is both irresponsible and cowardly….But whether you call it yellowface, white saviorhood, race-bending, erasure — it’s all whitewashing if a story rooted in Asian origins or an Asian setting defaults to a white normative reality. The filmmakers behind these properties, nearly all white men, are forcing white preference and white privilege into the spotlight and blaming it on a system that necessitates bankable white stars. The more these movies bomb while others like “Get Out” flourish, the more these excuses get exponentially more tedious.

And in the Hollywood Reporter, four Japanese actresses gave their thoughts. They spoke about some cultural dissonance or outright mistakes they think would have been handled correctly if the filmmakers were Japanese. Some of their comments:

Keiko Agena: It was harder to watch than I thought it was gonna be. To get emotionally invested, you have to really care that she needs to find out who she is. But when she finally meets her mom, my gut felt so weird in that moment.

Atsuko Okatsuka: ScarJo was probably lost. “OK, hold on. So I’m a Japanese woman. I used to be? Wait, I am. I talk to my boss in English even though he speaks to me in Japanese?”…It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.

Even if Hollywood does better on this (and on casting trans and disabled actors in roles reflecting their experience and understanding), we still have the problem of the past. An Asian friend recently wrote to a movie theater about their showing of the beloved Audrey Hepburn classic, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hepburn’s impeccable elegance cannot make up for the outrageously offensive portrayal of her Japanese neighbor, played by Mickey Rooney.

The theater manager’s thoughtful response:

I can say that this is a constant issue of programming a repertory theater. Showing anything from classic Hollywood is generally at the very least problematic, and in many cases, such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” an example of a horrible history of filmmaking. While this is not a plea to justify our decision to book this film, I hope you can understand that we do not condone every element of all of the films that we show and when booking classic film this issue is unavoidable. This film is playing as a part of a ‘music in film’ series; they will be performing a song from this film later in the month. I do hope the rest of our programming, specifically the new indie and modern repertory titles, reflect our commitment to diversity, progressivism, and positive depictions.

After a further exchange, the manager said they would provide some context.

On the evening of the screening, I will be present to introduce the film and to discuss Rooney’s performance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in order to shed light on these issues in classic Hollywood cinema and to let the audience know that both institutions are opposed to such portrayals. We will also be distributing a handout that discusses Rooney’s character and the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films.

That is the best we can do for movies of the past — to raise the issue and insist that it be addressed. We can do a lot better with movies of the future, to make sure that the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films is coming to an end.

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Race and Diversity Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Why Are the Acting Oscar Nominees All White AGAIN?

Posted on January 19, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Spike Lee, who accepted a special Oscar award just two months ago, has said he will boycott the award show this year in protest of yet another all-white list of nominees. He is right to be outraged. How could Sylvester Stallone be nominated for “Creed” while his co-star Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler are overlooked? What about the extraordinary performances in “Straight Outta Compton” (which only got a writing nomination and the Spike Lee’s completely overlooked “Chi-Raq?” What about a nomination for Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation” Fans and critics are outraged, with #oscarssoswhite hashtags dominating Twitter.

The Washington Post’s Lonnae O’Neal quotes my friend and fellow critic Tim Gordon in an excellent article about the “processing disorder” in the Academy when it comes to nominations for non-white performers.

From 1927 to 1999, a total of 14 black people won Oscars in all categories, he says. In acting categories, only 24 people of color have won since 1927, according to a Post report. More than 90 percent of Oscar voters are white and nearly 80 percent are male, according to the Los Angeles Times, and those numbers directly affect the range of stories and portrayals.

AMPAS head Cheryl Boone Isaacs, an African-American woman, is unhappy with the nominations as well, describing herself as “heartbroken and frustrated.” But until the Academy starts admitting more young, diverse members, it is not going to change. Boone agrees. She says. “The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond. As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”

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Awards Commentary Race and Diversity


Posted on August 27, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Aviva Kempner, the director of the acclaimed documentaries about baseball star Hank Greenberg and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, has a new film about early 20th century Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Like the prior films, this one is filled with meticulously curated archival footage, illuminating historical insights, and thoughtful comments from experts and family members. And as in the earlier films, Kempner has found a fascinating story. Julius Rosenwald is little discussed now, in part because at his direction his charitable foundation was closed down after his death and in part because some of his initiatives to build schools for black children in the South were wrongly considered a perpetuation of the despicable “separate but equal” policy. This film shows what a significant, even definitive impact Rosenwald had in the era leading up to the Civil Rights movement. And an understated final revelation shows how far ahead of his time he really was.

When Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe — think of Tevye and his family at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof” — many of them became peddlers, or traveling salesmen. They didn’t even have to know English. They just had to be willing to trudge from farm to farm and town to town with a suitcase of goods. One of the highlights of the film is the compilation of depictions of these salesmen in popular culture, including an episode of “Rawhide” with Clint Eastwood trying to use Yiddish(!).

Rosenwald’s father was a traveling salesman who settled in Springfield, Illinois, where he knew Senator and then President Abraham Lincoln. Rosenwald and his brother followed their father into retail and later teamed up with Sears and Roebuck. Sears was a great salesman but a poor businessman, but Rosenwald developed the business practices, efficiencies, reliability, and use of new technologies to make the company into the biggest retailer and one of the biggest companies in the United States. His idea was that the then-new Sears catalog was a way to “drop a peddler in the mailbox” of Americans who were too far from the cities to shop in the stores. The catalog was aspirational — you could see what was possible. Congressman John Lewis appears in the film, explaining that he first knew he wanted an education when he saw in the Sears catalogue what educated people with jobs could buy.

When they needed more capital, Sears had one of the country’s first public offerings of stock. Rosenwald became very wealthy.

He was very influenced by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, who taught him of the importance of tikkun olem — that it is the obligation of each of us to “heal the world.” And Rosenwald drew a direct parallel between the pogroms that Jews were experiencing in Europe and the racist assaults on blacks in the American South. In Hebrew the word for “charity” also means “justice.” And he was influenced by Booker T. Washington’s passion for education and empowerment. Washington brought Rosenwald to the Tuskegee Institute, where he was deeply moved by the self-reliance of the student body and the spirituals sung by the school choir.

With the same vision and focus on efficiency and responsibility he brought to his company, Rosenwald developed an ambitious program to build schools for black children in the South. The communities themselves had to raise part of the money and they had to build the schools themselves, similar to the approach of Habitat for Humanity in building homes. This meant that the communities were vitally involved and committed to the schools. With over 5300 schools giving black children the best educational opportunity they had ever had, the schools taught a generation who would grow up and provide the foundation for the Civil Rights movement. He also made grants to artists and scientists, including Marian Anderson, who used hers to study singing, and Dr. Charles Drew, whose innovation in blood transfusions has saved innumerable lives. He even gave a few grants to white southerners — Kempner shows us an application filled out by Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known as Woody.

And, as a title card informs us at the end, he contributed a third of the costs for the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that made his schools near-obsolete. That is vision.

Kempner’s film shows the difference one person can make by telling Rosenwald’s story, a critical history lesson and a welcome reminder of our own tikkun olem obligations.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion and depiction of bigotry, including lynching.

Family discussion: Who is most like Rosenwald today? What can you do to heal the world?

If you like this, try: Kempner’s other documentaries

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Documentary Race and Diversity

Native Americans Refuse to Work on Adam Sandler’s New Film

Posted on May 3, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Adam Sandler is currently filming “The Ridiculous Six,” reportedly a comic version of the classic Western “The Magnificent Seven.” According to Indian Country Today Media, a group of Native American actors walked off the set because they were offended by racist and sexist material in the script, including character names like Beaver Breath and No-Bra and crude humor.

“There were about a dozen of us who walked off the set,” said Anthony, who told ICTMN he had initially refused to do the movie. He then agreed to take the job when producers informed him they had hired a cultural consultant and efforts would be made for tasteful representation of Natives.

Five Thirty-Eight has an incisive look at the Sandler films, putting them in three categories: paydays, pineapples (a reference to a particularly gross joke in “Little Nicky”), and “he’s trying.” I wish he would try harder.

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Behind the Scenes Gender and Diversity Race and Diversity Understanding Media and Pop Culture

On PBS for Black History Month: American Denial

Posted on February 19, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Next Monday, PBS’ Independent Lens series will show “American Denial,” a documentary about where racism comes from and why it is so difficult to overcome.

Follow the story of Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal, whose landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, probed deep into the United States’ racial psyche. The film weaves a narrative that exposes some of the potential underlying causes of racial biases still rooted in America’s systems and institutions today.

An intellectual social visionary who later won a Nobel Prize in economics, Myrdal first visited the Jim Crow South at the invitation of the Carnegie Corporation in 1938, where he was “shocked to the core by all the evils saw.” With a team of scholars that included black political scientist Ralph Bunche, Myrdal wrote his massive 1,500-page investigation of race, now considered a classic.

An American Dilemma challenged the veracity of the American creed of equality, justice, and liberty for all. It argued that critically implicit in that creed — which Myrdal called America’s “state religion” — was a more shameful conflict: white Americans explained away the lack of opportunity for blacks by labeling them inferior. Myrdal argued that this view justified practices and policies that openly undermined and oppressed the lives of black citizens. Seventy years later, are we still a society living in this state of denial, in an era marked by the election of the nation’s first black president?

American Denial sheds light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans, using archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, as well as research footage, websites, and YouTube films showing psychological testing of racial attitudes. Exploring “stop-and-frisk” practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially-patterned poverty, the film features a wide array of historians, psychologists, and sociologists who offer expert insight and share their own personal, unsettling stories. The result is a unique and provocative film that challenges our assumptions about who we are and what we really believe.

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Race and Diversity Television
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