Will Hollywood studios finally put an end to ‘whitewashing’ in 2018?
Outrage against onscreen race-swapping grew so loud in 2017 that studios might finally be listening.
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In August, British actor Ed Skrein was hailed as a hero for walking away from the upcoming Hellboy reboot. He was set to play Major Ben Daimio, an Asian character in the original graphic novel source material, but backed out after a public backlash. While the producers originally took offence at the negative reaction — “We don’t see colours or race,” said one — they eventually recast the role with Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean-American actor.
Skrein’s decision marks a turning point in a Hollywood storyline that has become all too commonplace: Asian leading roles filled by white actors. But now that the backlash against whitewashing has grown louder, actors themselves are speaking out against the practice, while others realize that taking such roles might not be worth it.
In previous years, actors would play a whitewashed part then apologize after the fact when it became a controversy. Think Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan or Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Skrein, by contrast, stepped aside before production began and posted a heartfelt statement on social media — “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity,” he wrote — that went viral, further shaming the producers into doing the right thing.
This year’s other high-profile whitewashes — Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson, The Great Wall starring Matt Damon and the weird race-bending Netflix adaption of Death Note — were stung by sharp criticism and disappointing box office. And if anything is likely to change Hollywood ways, it’s evidence that race-swapping is bad for business.
“I don’t think it’s making much business sense for studios to make these wrong decisions because there is . . . so much backlash,” casting director Lucy Bevan told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month in a roundtable discussion on whether the film and TV industry was changing. The six female casting directors were largely optimistic.
One, Sarah Finn, called Skrein quitting the Hellboy reboot “proof that we’ve turned the page.”
But there are more pages to be turned.
Just last month, Kevin Kwan, bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians, told Entertainment Weekly that some studio executives had tried to whitewash the upcoming film adaptation, changing the lead female role from Asian to white.
Diversity should be better business, especially now that the foreign box office has become the financial lifeline for so many films. But the industry has been painfully slow to adapt.
That’s the basic finding of a study released in July by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, analyzing the top 900 films from 2007 to 2016. It shows that while there is much greater awareness of diversity issues in Hollywood and the media, representation has not improved.
What is remarkable is how consistently little has changed over the past decade. Of the top 100 films of 2016, the study analyzed 4,583 speaking parts: 70.8 per cent were white; 13.6 per cent Black; 5.7 per cent Asian; 3.1 per cent Hispanic and less than 1 per cent Indigenous.
Only three of the top 100 films had a lead or co-lead from an underrepresented group. There was also what they called the “invisibility” breakdown: 25 of the 100 films did not feature a single Black character in a speaking role; 54 had no Hispanic characters and 44 had no Asian characters.
“Every year we’re hopeful that we will actually see change,” Stacy L. Smith, the study’s lead author and professor at USC, told The Associated Press. “Unfortunately that hope has not quite been realized.”
Those numbers are why whitewashing is so abhorrent. It is stealing some of the precious few major roles that should have gone to actors from underrepresented communities.
Will we see more diverse faces onscreen in 2018? Only if producers and executives follow the bold lead of Ed Skrein and do away with whitewashing.
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