Whitewashing has been cemented in the culture of Hollywood since it has existed. The term “whitewashing” is defined as a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles. In the early days of Hollywood, white actors Rudolph Valentino and Katharine Hepburn infamously portrayed characters of Arab and Chinese descent, with the former portraying Sheik, an Arab character in “The Sheik,” and the latter portraying a Chinese peasant woman named Jade in “Dragon Seed.” Chinese actress Anna May Wong was considered to play O-Lan, the wife of protagonist Wang in “The Good Earth.” Pearl S. Buck, author of the novel that the film was based on, intended the film to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese-American actors, but anti-miscreation rules at the time dictated that the protagonist’s wife be portrayed by a white actress. MGM offered Wong the role of Lotus, but she refused, stating in an interview, “You’re asking me–with Chinese blood–to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
The trend of whitewashing only got worse, with Mickey Rooney’s infamous caricature of Mr. Yunioshi, landlord to Audrey Hepburn, in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The bucktoothed, myopic Japanese character drew heavy criticism from audiences in later years as being a painful, cringe-inducing stereotype.
In the 2010s, whitewashing has sadly become more prevalent than before. M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the cartoon “The Last Airbender” became a commercial flop when it was revealed that the primarily-Asian characters were portrayed by white actors. In 2016, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon and Finn Jones drew heavy criticism for their film roles (and in Jones’ case, television show). Johansson portrayed the cyborg policewoman Mokoto Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell.” The character is revealed in the film to possess the cyberbrain and memories of a Japanese woman. Johansson responded to the criticism in a statement to Huffington Post, saying, “I would never presume to play a person of another race.”
Swinton portrayed the “Celtic” character The Ancient One, a mystic character who guides Stephen Strange in “Dr. Strange.” Based on the Marvel comic character of the same name, the character is a Tibetan man in the comics. “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life,” a statement from Marvel reads. “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”
Even mainstream Netflix shows such as “Iron Fist” and “Death Note,” the latter based on a Japanese series, have completely whitewashed their characters. In the case of “Ghost in the Shell,” the series creator and most of the Japanese fans consider it an honor that someone as prestigious as Scarlett is playing the main character. Abroad however, it is viewed as racist and stereotypical. White actors seem to have some sort of advantage getting roles, while people such as Walking Dead mainstay Steven Yeun are forced to read for roles of minimal importance.
Nevertheless, there is hope. For example, both the director and the novel author are pushing for their film adaptation of the bestselling novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” starring Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan and Henry Golding, to have an exclusively-Asian cast. Wu, who stars in the ABC comedy “Fresh off the Boat,” wrote about the value of Asian representation onscreen when Matt Damon was cast as the lead in the film “The Great Wall.” “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon,” Wu writes. “They look like Malala. Gandhi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time.” And honestly, I believe that she is right.
Sources: Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Marvel, twitter.com