If you weren’t already aware, cinema is a place of whitewashing. A lot of directors, a lot of writers, a lot of actors and beyond are white. For two years the Oscars have been criticised for not nominating any people of colour for their main categories, but now the attacks are getting more traction.
This week saw the release of the trailer for a new Matt Damon starring action film, The Great Wall, and as one would assume it’s about the Great Wall of China. The story centers on the wall itself, imagined as a hive for dragons and other beasties in the Northern Song Dynasty, a era that lasted from 960 to 1279, yet the poster and the marketing material peg it as a Matt Damon starring action flick. This is just one in a long line of films that either shoehorn a white lead or cast white people in roles that should be going to people of colour.
This year alone has seen controversy for Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Traditionally Dr Strange himself is depicted as a man of Middle Eastern decent akin to actors like Oded Fehr, while Tilda Swinton’s character of The Ancient One has always been portrayed as an Asian man hailing from the Himalayas. This follows Marvel’s casting of Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Romani characters, despite neither having Romani heritage.
This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. In previous years, white people have been cast in roles that should be going to people of colour. Films include: The Lone Ranger, Aloha, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gods of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Pan. But perhaps best of all is Star Trek Into Darkness where once again Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a character called Khan Noonien Singh, a role originally made famous by Ricardo Montalban. Criticisms to The Hunger Games also came when very pale Jennifer Lawrence was cast as olive skinned Katniss Everdeen.
All of this, however has come to a head with the remake of Ghost in the Shell. The remake of the beloved anime has gone forward with Rupert Sanders directing (the guy who “directed” Snow White and the Huntsman), but despite the initial backlash of “all remakes suck”, further controversy came when the anime’s lead character Major Motoko Kusangi was going to be portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Does this problem go further than just executives being scared?
After all most remakes of Japanese films retain the Japanese setting while remaking the film with white leads ala The Grudge, worst of all the 2008 remake of Shutter took a Korean horror film and moved it to Japan, but shoehorning white leads into the film.
Ironically several of these films have garned acclaim, and while people have complained about the whitewashing of Kusangi for Ghost in the Shell, there has been very little done to combat this problem. Coming hot on the heels of #starringconstancewu and #starringjohncho, two twitter campaigns that highlight the lack of Asian actors in mainstream movies while the films that do feature diverse casts, they fail at the box office.
Pacific Rim failed to turn a profit in the US and the future of the series is in question, despite the heroic stylings of both Idris Elba and Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi. Similarly, while The Hunger Games, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Last Samurai received widespread acclaim despite their racial skewing, Suicide Squad has been kicked around town, despite starring actors as diverse as Viola Davis, Will Smith, Adam Beech, Karen Fukunga and Jay Hernandez.
Which brings us back to The Great Wall and Matt Damon, who was one of the nominees in this years super-white Oscars. Considering the Academy is the American Academy of Arts and Science, only two people of Native American decent have been nominated for acting oscars, thirty years apart, both male, both for supporting actor. Less than the number of White, Black or even Asian actors nominated. Is Hollywood so scared that the world will not see a film with a non-white lead that it will purposely find ways to re-write history. Despite the fact that previous efforts like Keanu Reeves starring in 47 Ronin failed at the box office, and The Lone Ranger was a complete dud.
Let’s not forget that this is an age and an industry that turned Will Smith, Denzel Washington and even Beyonce Knowles into box office stars, able to hold films themselves. Despite all of that, we are still not so far off the old days. Of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Is the world so deep in the past that we’re willing to try and re-write historic facts to fit our own racist agenda? Go see Suicide Squad and enjoy its racially diverse cast, it’s good fun. Rally against Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall for its whitewashing, because that’s the only way these things will change.
Failing that, we could always start a petition for a Donald Trump biopic starring Cheech Marin or #starringjohncho. A completely different story about a wall.