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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