Actor Ed Skrein’s recent departure from the reboot of the film “Hellboy” because of “whitewashing” concerns is the latest controversy over Hollywood’s casting mentality of using white faces to play Asian characters.
In reality, the practice has been going on for nearly a century in cinema. As early as 1919, D.W. Griffith, in his film “Broken Blossoms,” cast white actor Richard Barthelmess to play a Chinese immigrant who eventually develops an interracial relationship with a troubled woman, played by Lillian Gish.
In the 1930s, Charlie Chan surfaced on the big screen, a Chinese detective solving crimes around the world. The character had slanted eyes and a thin mustache, speaking broken but fluent English, boasting of numerous Chinese sons. The role was actually played by three Caucasian actors — Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters — over two decades.
In the 1970s, David Carradine was cast in the TV hit “Kung Fu,” playing a peace-loving Shaolin monk. The series ran from 1972-75, a time when martial arts and Eastern thought emerged in American pop culture. The highly rated success of “Kung Fu” reinforced whitewashing of Asians on screen as both acceptable to mainstream TV audiences and profitable to the industry.
Big-name white stars cast as Asians was, for decades, the unchallenged norm of TV as well as films. For example, Peter Sellers played a Chinese criminal mastermind in the comedy “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” co-starring Helen Mirren, in 1980. The movie was critically panned. Yet Roger Ebert’s review at the time (one star) failed to touch on how Sellers’ portrayal of Fu Manchu — wearing Chinese robes and long, painted nails, and with his eyes shamelessly taped to mimic Asian stereotypical features — smacked of racial and cultural insensitivity.
Social media, however, are changing the landscape. Whitewashing is increasingly a topic of controversy on the internet, its emergence fueled by Asian-American and progressive voices from TV and film demanding change. The online outcry is swift. Twitter comments, memes, commentary and potential public relations storms are making it more difficult for Hollywood to ignore calls for change.
A case in point is the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Maj. Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” a starring role based on a Japanese manga. Box office revenues were disappointing and the negative fallout online over casting Johansson instead of an Asian-American lingered even after the film debuted. At one point, social media users took a meme Paramount put out, #IAmMajor, and used it as a form of protest.
Box office draw is a key factor in casting. Studios look for name recognition and proven successes. As long as Asians are not considered for leading roles, there is little chance they can attain Hollywood star power. It’s a cycle of perpetual exclusion.
But don’t look for the eradication of whitewashing anytime soon. Michael Lewis, author of “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” doesn’t think his bestselling book will make it to the big screen. “Hollywood won’t cast a movie with an Asian lead,” he said in a recent interview at the National Book Festival in Washington. “They’ve gotten to the point where they’re nervous about making an Asian guy a white guy. A decade ago, they weren’t. They’d have just done that.”
Hollywood claims to embrace diversity, yet films often reflect selective color-blindness, especially when it comes to casting Asian-Americans. On the big and the small screens, that mindset — decades old — needs to change. Get with the times.
Joann Lee is professor of communication at William Paterson University. She is author of “Asian-American Actors: Oral Histories from Stage, Screen and Television.”