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Hollywood and Race: How many times are we going to cast the wrong lead?

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Salwa Majeed
   Staff Writer

 

Hollywood receives enough grief when it decides to remake classic entertainment. The criticism rises when viewers challenge the decision of Hollywood filmmakers to ‘whitewash,’ or cast white performers in Asian roles.

 

The most recent incident of Hollywood failing to see color is the movie adaptation of the

Japanese manga series “Ghost in the Shell” (2017). With Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko

Kusanagi. In a segment of NPR’s ‘Weekend Edition on Saturday,’ it was revealed that Paramount Pictures sent the actress to ‘Good Morning America,’ where she discussed that her character has no race.

 

To say that Major Kusanagi of “Ghost in the Shell” has no race, means that Hollywood should not have inherently defaulted to casting a white actress to play the role. By no means am I criticizing Scarlett Johansson’s impeccable acting in this cyborg-dystopian science fiction setting. Yet why does Hollywood keep undermining the talents and achievements of Asian actors and actresses when it comes to roles that rightfully belong to them?

 

“Ghost in the Shell” isn’t the only film that’s been subjected to whitewashing. Metro News published an article late March that discussed ten other Hollywood films that had the same issue. Among the list were “Doctor Strange” (2016), which had casted Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One, a character who is a Tibetan man in the original Marvel comic-book series. The Guardian published a similar article in 2015 criticizing Hollywood whitewashing, citing Cameron Crowe’s film “Aloha” (2015) which starred Emma Stone playing Allison Ng, a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage. We can never forget the emotional wreckage that came with the Hollywood adaptation of Dragonball Evolution (2009), which managed to ethnically erase and simultaneously stereotype the Asian characters of the internationally renowned Dragonball series.

 

Hollywood also finds itself under fire for its failure to correctly cast and portray movies set in the Middle-East. This includes American actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in “Prince of Persia” (2010), and Alex Proyas’ film “Gods of Egypt” (2016) that decided not to cast a single Egyptian in any major role. Other films that managed to whitewash includes M Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of the animated TV series “The Last Airbender” (2010). It was condemned for recasting the good characters as white, with south Asians, such as actor Dev Patel, only allowed to play the villains.

 

Despite the allegations of whitewashing, Hollywood filmmakers continue to defend this racial insensitivity. In the same NPR segment of ‘Weekend Edition on Saturday,’ it was suggested that some filmmakers believe white actors cast in Asian roles means more money, domestically and internationally. Of course the bigger the actor or actress starring in the film, the more profit it should generate. Yet when “Ghost in the Shell” has disappointed fans of the anime, and further gone to disappoint newcomers upon learning about the poor casting decision, box office numbers didn’t fare well despite Johansson’s big role. According to the segment, the film was budgeted at $110 million, but earned only about $19 million in North American box offices over opening weekend.

 

Asian-Americans and other minorities have been pleading for Hollywood to end not only the whitewashing, but also to stop undermining the talents of nonwhite actors and actresses that rightfully deserve to play these lead roles in major films, especially when the films are adaptations that originate from other cultures.

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