What is Wrong with "Whitewashing" Movies?

08/30/2017 03:12 pm ET

The recent decision by actor Ed Skrein not to appear in the forthcoming Hellboy movie has been applauded, and rightly so. Skrein, a rapper-actor who was the original Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones, is Caucasian, having “a mixed heritage family,” as he himself noted in his announcement, and he had been cast as Japanese American soldier Ben Daimio in the superhero reboot. His choice to remove himself opens the opportunity to explain what is wrong with “whitewashing.”

Like the humiliation of “blackface” (also lately in the news), the use of non-Asian actors as Asian characters, “yellowface,” has a lengthy history, almost all of it offensive. It is not merely out of sensitivity, however, that audiences ought to object. For every critic who gives bad press to the practice, another critic is ready to deem the problem the nonsense of “political correctness.”

The claim is that fiction requires we suspend belief. That is true enough. Yet our vision, literal and figurative, is selective. We are able to picture some people as capable and free to do as they wish, other people as neither.

The first major campaign against “whitewashing” involved Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon more than a quarter-century ago. Sold out in its London run, the spectacular show, featuring a helicopter landing on stage, was revived recently. Pryce was set to wear prosthetics to slant his eyes as “the Engineer” in the modern-dress variation on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly (already itself a troubling story of submission to imperialism). Playwright David Henry Hwang raised the outcry. (Hwang himself later wrote a sendup of the episode.) Pryce, whose impresario figure was then revealed to be Eurasian as if to excuse the wrong, delivered a response that sounds reasonable. He said that if we insisted on every thespian taking only roles corresponding to his actual ethnicity, Pryce, of Welsh background, would be extraordinarily restricted. The show went on. Pryce refrained from the crude makeup.

The catch is that such idealistic reasoning is invoked primarily for the benefit of whites. The Asian — and even more so, Asian American (not the same) — professional rarely is offered the opportunity to begin with. The result is that whites (and Pryce ignores how “white” has come to embrace various groups to their advantage) can portray anybody and everybody, while people of color are not only prohibited from being whites but also cannot even be themselves. Whiteness is the default and the norm. It sets the standard to which we should aspire but cannot achieve.

The lack of Asian faces on the screen creates a cycle. Asian Americans are limited. The depiction signals to Asian Americans that they are to remain bit players in the background. That affects how Asian Americans perceive of the possibilities for themselves: martial arts master; geisha girl; technology expert; often waiter or delivery boy; maybe scientist or doctor. They possess all the smarts, but they lack soul. They are not leaders, rebels, athletes, or artists. In other words, they not fully formed as individuals or communities.

That is why it is encouraging to see activism by Asian Americans, not expected to be principled in protest. Comedian Margaret Cho, who broke out in the first TV sitcom about Asian Americans, All-American Girl, which had a regrettably short run in the mid-1990s, stands at the forefront of a social media campaign. At last people are taking notice of what has been obvious. They are asking about Hollywood’s “Asian problem.”

Nonetheless “whitewashing” persists. From all of the Chinese peasant family in The Good Earth (1937), based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel, to every iteration of detective Charlie Chan to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which established Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, to the Airbenders, there has been a tradition of non-Asians impersonating Asians. As Japanese landlord I.Y. Yunioshi, not a sympathetic personality, Rooney was complete with fake buck teeth, squinty eyes, and generally cringe-inducing mannerisms. At least in a few instances, such as Manchurian Candidate’s Henry Silva (Italian and Hispanic) and Noble House’s Khigh Dhiegh (Middle Eastern, born as Kenneth Dickerson) and Flower Drum Song’s Juanita Hall (African American) it was people who also were ethnic minorities. Scarlett Johansson was the heroine of the live-action Ghost in the Shell, inspired by the Japanese manga series, a box office flop earlier this year. Tilda Swinton was the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that did well last year. People who are partly Asian are fully white, such as George Clooney in The Descendants (2011) and Emma Stone in Aloha (2015). (To be fair, Linda Hunt won an Oscar in 1983 as an Asian man, and Anglo-Indian Ben Kingsley was a compelling Ghandi.)

Even in stories based on actual Asian Americans, the stylized versions eliminate them. The ensemble thriller 21 (2008) was about MIT students who won millions at blackjack by card counting in Las Vegas casinos. Chinese American Jeff Ma became thoroughly Caucasian Ben Campell (Jim Sturgess). The Asian Americans were relegated to “friends.” The producers explained they did not have access to “bankable” Asian American actors whom they “wanted.” In the courtroom drama True Believer (1989), which recounts the wrongful conviction of Korean American Chol Soo Lee for a 1970s San Francisco Chinatown murder, he is absent. The focus is on his lawyers (James Woods and Robert Downey Jr.) as white saviors.

There are so many explicit examples of how “whitewashing” and its corollary of “whites represent all of humanity” that you can hardly believe it. In Noah (2014), everyone who is saved on board the Ark is white. In Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), the darker the individual, the less important.

What is worse is the reaction when the discriminatory pattern is called out. Directors Darren Aronofsky, who made Noah, and Ridley Scott, behind the camera for Exodus, have created other masterpieces of the cinema presenting fully-realized universes, become defensive and dismissive on the subject of diversity. Likewise, the Coen brothers, who are acclaimed by all, asked about the whiteness of Hail, Caesar, in sincerity, seem capable of only sarcasm. The Coens had an inexplicable Asian American character in Fargo, arriving for the sole purpose of demonstrating his lack of social skills; and an interesting “Chinaman,” who pees on a rug (the MacGuffin), prompting discussion of “Asian American” as the “preferred nomenclature.” In a rare exception, Alex Proyas apologized for Gods of Egypt (2016), similarly uniform in whiteness despite the setting. (It was panned anyway.)

It should be no surprise that the few Asian Americans who are stars cannot help but become stereotypes. Bruce Lee was the first non-white to produce, direct, perform, and write with global success. He was heroic. Even so he also was the subject of mockery. Every boy of East Asian descent — “you all look alike” — is aware of the bullying on the playground by those who expect him to be another Bruce Lee (or Jackie Chan or Jet Li).

We can have hope. African Americans and Latinos have transformed entertainment. The musical Hamilton is revolutionary in many respects. The first Elizabeth Schuyler was Phillipa Soo. She then was Amélie. She is Eurasian in fact.

Asians, even more than Asian Americans, can be agents of change. Box office receipts increasingly come from China. Asian ticketbuyers have power. They only need to exercise it.

What we watch is what we see. What we pretend is what we make. What we exclude in our imaginations we exclude in our realities. Whitewashing is not necessary. It will continue unless we insist it be stopped. Each of us is entitled to write the script of our own life.

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