“Only 1.4 percent of lead characters in a sample of studio films released in 2014 were Asian,” according to Amanda Hess of the NY Times.
Why does Hollywood refuse to cast more Asian actors? Why the excuses, smoke and mirrors? You’ve probably heard about Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange, two movies that have recently caught a lot of flack for whitewashing. Is it well deserved?
When Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Marvel Studios explained that they didn’t want to lose their Chinese audience by casting a Tibetan actor or having a Tibetan monk play the Ancient One. However, this is a really poor excuse because the movie’s setting was moved to Nepal, so the studio didn’t even have to worry about casting a Tibetan actor.
The other explanation they gave comes from writer Jon Spaihts, who explained that they were diversifying the role by casting a woman instead of a male. “Tilda is an instance of us taking a male role and putting a woman in it, which I think the film badly needed. The comic world of ‘Doctor Strange’ is very male.”
But then that raises the question, why didn’t they cast an Asian-American actress? When I watched the movie, there was only one scene where her ethnicity was directly mentioned – “She’s Celtic, and ancient, that’s all we know.” They could have easily cast an Asian-American actress and replaced that one line. Marvel Studios claimed they wanted to avoid perpetuating Asian stereotypes given the nature of the role, but their solution angered Asian-American fans more than it pleased them. Swinton gave a great performance, but she shouldn’t have been considered for the role in the first place.
The 2017 Hollywood adaptation of the anime series Ghost in the Shell has also been met with considerable backlash and protest after it was revealed that Scarlett Johansson was cast as the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a Japanese woman in the original anime. In a Buzzfeed interview with producer Steven Paul, he justified the casting by calling it an “international story.” He said, “I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world. That’s why I say the international approach is, I think, the right approach to it.” Even if you agree that it’s an international story, how does casting a white actress make the film more international? It’s just pandering to white American audiences and alienating its Asian-American audience. Johansson’s casting makes it arguably less international and gives Americans the impression that Asian-Americans aren’t even good enough to take lead roles in a movie of Japanese origin.
In an interview with Mashable, actor Waris Ahluwalia called out the industry on its tendency to pigeonhole Asian (including South Asian) actors into immigrant roles. He said, “Well, not really, I’m from here, I went to the prom, I was a boy scout. I wasn’t in the immigrant boy scouts. I wasn’t senior class vice president of the immigrants at my school. So why would I play an immigrant role? I think I’m more suited to be the guy next door. Because guess what? I am the guy next door.” He raised an important point: he’s as American as any white male actor, but the industry is set in its ways and isn’t willing to release him from the immigrant-role trap. Maybe they think Americans aren’t ready to see it that way, but they never will be if they aren’t exposed to films with greater diversity – to films with Americans like Ahluwalia in lead roles.
Based on the trends in television that I’ve discussed in my previous two articles, I think we are ready for a change, and Hollywood is dragging its feet.