Hollywood, the massive movie-making machine that it is, has an unfortunately long history of allowing racial biases and entrenched systems of oppression to influence casting decisions. And it is an unfortunate yet inevitable reality that, depending upon one’s personal and political beliefs, this statement may be either accepted or challenged.
Still, all one has to do is look at the characters onscreen in any major movie to understand the industry’s racially-biased tendencies. Hollywood has adopted a frighteningly troublesome habit of adapting existing works of fiction that feature non-white characters and casting white actors in the roles, or phasing out such characters altogether. Netflix’s Death Note film may be one of the most recent examples of this tendency, but it’s one among many.
Beyond simply displaying blatant prejudice toward countless talented actors of a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds by depriving them of meaningful roles, this practice serves to both lessen the impact of the stories the films are adapting, and in an even more harmful sense, eliminate cultural perspectives that have not been properly explored in films before. In today’s political and social climate, these diverse cultural perspectives are more vital than ever. This whitewashing is, in essence, cultural erasure, and it absolutely must stop if any true progress is to be made.
The reason Death Note is worth mentioning is because of the unique perspective of its main character. Originally a Japanese manga series that spawned a slew of anime series and Japanese films, Death Note tells the story of a high school student named Light Yagami who uses a supernatural notebook called the Death Note to summon a death god known as Ryuk, who will kill anyone whose name Light writes in the notebook while picturing their face. Light decides to use the notebook to rid the world of evil, adopting a god complex in an effort to create his version of a utopia, while a detective named L works to stop him.
Attracted to the darkly unique storyline, 10 American film studios reportedly fought over the rights to the film before Netflix ultimately bought the movie from Warner Bros. and began production with director Adam Wingard in 2016. But the American adaptation of the Japanese story would feature certain controversial changes.
The setting of the film was shifted from Japan to America, an understandable decision for an American remake. But then white actor Nat Wolff was cast as Light, whose last name was changed from Yagami to Turner. Following the understandable backlash this decision received, Wingard publicly responded that the character’s race and name were changed because his movie is, “about America.” While this weak answer displays an extraordinary lack of awareness on Wingard’s part regarding diversity in America (he is essentially disregarding the validity of the Asian American experience as a whole), fans of the Death Note franchise quickly pointed out that erasing Light’s Japanese identity in a version of the story set in America actually misses out on an excellent opportunity to explore the darker elements of life as an Asian American adolescent.
Part of the brilliance of Light’s character in the original Japanese manga, as many fans have noted, comes from the fact that he is expected to fit into the stereotypical mold of a Japanese teen as a model student. The pressure of this isolating existence is part of what drives him to feel he has earned the right to self-righteously kill criminals. His whole life has been spent following the strict expectations that society has laid out for him, and when a demon gives him the ability to transcend these societal rules, he falls back on the academic intelligence his culture has forced him to cultivate to justify the idea that he knows best who should live and who should die. Light even uses his reputation as a straight-laced academic achiever as a cover for his killing spree.
This “model minority” stereotype clearly persists in the United States, so by casting an actor of Asian descent as Light (with the film set in America), Wingard could have offered a unique cinematic exploration of the pressure this stereotype exerts upon young Asian Americans, and the way in which it can impact their sense of self. Instead, the new film blandly presents Light as an angsty white teen, downplaying his academic prowess in order to focus on his generic, brooding attitude (an angle we’ve seen many times before). The cultural impact of the character is totally lost, and the social power of the story is significantly reduced.
The new Death Note film has thus disappointed fans and earned dismal critical reception. Wingard has expressed frustration with fans for being touchy about any change to the source material, but this complaint misses the point. Fans of the Death Note franchise aren’t merely disappointed due to the film’s deviations from the manga. For instance, changing the movie’s setting to Seattle worked fine for most people. The problem stems from the erasure of Light’s cultural background, an integral part of the psychology of his character which could have served to offer a rich representation of the Asian American experience. Without this element, the film fails to authentically translate and enrich its source material, becoming just another forgettable horror film.
The whitewashing problem extends to a variety of major motion pictures. Marvel Studios caught flak last year for casting white actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the film Doctor Strange, a character who in the original comics was represented as a man of Asian descent. Director Scott Derrickson defended the casting choice, claiming that he decided to cast a woman in the role because the comic book world of Doctor Strange is unreasonably male-dominated. On the issue of gender, Derrickson makes a point here, and his intention makes sense.
But he further asserted that casting an Asian actress as The Ancient One would in his mind feed into the negative movie stereotype of the “Dragon Lady,” a domineering Asian female, which is why he chose a white actress to play the role. Assuming that any Asian actress would only come across as scheming and domineering displays clear racial bias on the part of Derrickson, and he unfortunately eliminated the opportunity for the film to present a capable, powerful and compassionate Asian woman as a lead character, a representation we don’t see often enough.
His decision is also confusing in terms of the source material’s story, since the movie spins The Ancient One to be an immortal being of Celtic origin who somehow ends up teaching the mystic arts in the Himalayas, rather than an individual who grew up in the Himalayas (as the comics dictated). The illogical relocation of The Ancient One in the film, and the screenplay’s weak attempts to explain it, only make the casting of Tilda Swinton feel even more contrived. A similarly clunky explanation was jammed into this year’s live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell to justify the casting of white actress Scarlett Johansson as Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi, prompting similarly understandable public backlash.
Yet perhaps even worse than inauthentically casting white actors in non-white roles is the practice of erasing non-white characters entirely from a work of fiction when translating it to the big screen. Director Sofia Coppola’s recent adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled represents a terribly problematic example of this trend. The book takes place in the Civil War-era South, telling the tale of an injured Union soldier who attempts to seduce and deceive multiple women at a Southern school for girls and ultimately becomes the recipient of their vengeance. While most of the characters in the novel are privileged white Southern women, one, Mattie, is an enslaved African-American maid, and another, Edwina, is a free mixed-race teen.
Both of these characters were featured in a 1971 film adaptation of the novel, but in her 2017 adaptation, Coppola shockingly chose to cut both characters from the story. Mattie is eliminated from the film entirely, and Edwina’s character traits are folded into actress Kirsten Dunst’s white teacher character. When asked why she removed any trace of African-American characters from a movie set in the South during the Civil War, Coppola said that she didn’t want to brush over the issue lightly and that since impressionable young girls watch her movies, she didn’t want to present a depiction of enslaved African-American characters.
To properly unpack Coppola’s comments, one only has to look at the source material. In the novel, rather than the repressed stereotypes that Coppola’s comments suggest, Mattie and Edwina are in fact complex and intelligent characters with significant agency. Edwina struggles to hide her ethnic background from the other women at the school and must grapple with the fact that John McBurney, the Union soldier, tries to appeal to her insecurities regarding her race in an effort to manipulate her emotions. Meanwhile, Mattie is one of the book’s strongest characters, a woman who quickly sees through McBurney’s lies when others fall for them, displaying independence, courage, and admirable self-respect when she capably spurns his aggressive advances. Such rich representations of African-American women would be absolutely beneficial and vital for audiences to see onscreen, and the 1971 film understood this, featuring authentic interpretations of both characters.
But Coppola’s decision denies the movie the opportunity to explore the powerful cultural and racial perspective of African-American women forced into the difficult position of dealing with a soldier who fights in an army dedicated to freeing slaves, yet is morally hollow. Coppola’s movie not only lacks the narrative depth of the novel, quite literally paling in comparison to the earlier film adaptation, but also marks itself as fundamentally historically inaccurate, presenting a vision of the Civil War-era South completely devoid of African-American individuals, as well as any acknowledgement of the institution of slavery. This isn’t just insulting, it’s inauthentic.
Sadly, it’s hard to find any sign of whitewashing coming to an end in Hollywood, but one recent situation offers a glimmer of hope. When white actor Ed Skrein was cast as Ben Daimio in the upcoming Hellboy cinematic reboot, there was immediate backlash due to the fact that in the Hellboy comics upon which the film is based, Daimio was of mixed Asian descent. Skrein made headlines when he decided to exit the project upon learning of the character’s ethnic background. The actor’s public statement regarding the decision reflected his intention to stop the, “worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts.”
While his decision is certainly admirable and received a great deal of positive press coverage, it also shows how easily white actors can be cast in roles that should be performed by actors of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This reflects a need for performers to properly investigate the roles for which they are auditioning in order to understand whether or not they are going to be erasing minority perspectives. The responsibility of researching a character in advance rests as much on the actor as on the casting directors, a valuable lesson for Hollywood’s stars to learn.
While some may still only view Hollywood’s whitewashing as a strictly political issue, it is clear that the problem goes much deeper than racial bias and amounts to a denial of cultural representation in America. In an era when white supremacy has presented itself in a more ferociously tangible and viscerally present sense than it has in years, this denial is quite literally the last thing America needs. Now more than ever, Hollywood should be celebrating cultural diversity by taking care to properly and authentically represent unique minority perspectives. As we have been brutally reminded, this country already has plenty of individuals fighting to silence minority voices, and if Hollywood truly wants to influence popular culture in a beneficial and progressive manner, they will answer these sentiments by working to truthfully tell the stories of characters that audiences need to see onscreen.