About a week and a half ago, Variety reported that the Ghost in the Shell live-action film, which had been in development hell for years, was underway and had Scarlett Johanssen in the lead after Margot Robbie turned it down. Not only did this impress upon me to actually read the manga, but it excited and angered GitS fans across the world. The former is understandable, but the latter is a bit more complex. Why? Well, the main character of GitS is named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she’s Japanese. Johanssen, while a great actress, is white. Why didn’t Touchstone Pictures ask any Japanese actresses?
And this isn’t the only live-action adaptation based on a Japanese franchise where Hollywood has looked at only white actors. The Akira film, which once again is in development after many years in and out of development hell, has been notorious for its producers trying to get white actors in the roles of Japanese characters. Justin Timberlake, Robert Pattinson, and Andrew Garfield are the latest names to come up. George Takei has been vocal about this, warning producers they will upset fans and have a repeat of The Last Airbender (an adaptation of the American anime Avatar: The Last Airbender) if they don’t cast Asian actors. Remember the latter film had a mostly white cast, and, although the film was problematic on a number of levels, the fact that the very diverse characters were all played by white actors upset many fans.
And it’s not just films based on anime that has had this problem. Biblical films such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings have received a lot of criticism not just for the liberties taken with their stories, but the fact that while the characters being portrayed would have most likely have been from the Middle East and Africa, the principle actors were all white. And in Pan, an upcoming movie based on Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is played by Rooney Mara, who is white while her character is Native American. Surprisingly, the Peter Pan live musical on NBC last month actually had a Native American actress and tried not to be so stereotypical with their portrayal of Native Americans, which was one of the few good things about that disaster. The 2003 Peter Pan film also cast a Native American actress in the role of Tiger Lily, and that film rocked! Why can’t Pan do the same thing?
And here’s something interesting I’m not sure if other people have noticed: when the Harry Potter films were still being made, the first couple of films had two different actresses, both black, playing Lavender Brown. At that point she was a background character for the films, but once the sixth book came out she had a much bigger role. When we see her in the sixth movie, she’s played by Jessie Cave, who was white. I mean really. The HP universe has already shown that the main basis for discrimination is how pure your blood is. JK Rowling has already stated that gender isn’t a big deal in the Wizarding world, and I don’t think race would be a big deal either. What’s wrong with Ron dating a black girl, even if the relationship doesn’t work out in the end? Heck, Fred went to the Yule Ball with Angelina Johnson, who in the books was black, and after the series she married and had kids with George Weasley.
And why the heck wasn’t Selma in the Oscars this year? I mean, I don’t really care about the Oscars, but apparently this year has only white nominees, and of those most are male. I don’t know why. I saw Selma, and it was powerful and beautiful. Why can’t it get a nomination or two?
I’ve been vocal about how, almost 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, this nation is still full of racial inequality, most illustrated this past year in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and quite a few others, the trials that seem to have lead to nowhere, and the protests that have followed them. The many roles where white actors have played characters of non-white nationalities may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually pretty big. The media has a great power to influence millions and millions of people. What does it say when the people who go to movies don’t see themselves in the movies that they go to see? Even in roles where they should be seeing themselves?
I’m not sure what Hollywood’s reasoning for doing all this white-washing. Maybe they like to bank on star power or something. But I think that studio execs are making a big mistake by not including more diverse casts in their films. TV execs are catching on much faster: TV shows like Sleepy Hollow, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which pride themselves on their diversity, are tearing up the prime time landscape, Black-ish and Jane the Virgin, which feature mostly black or Hispanic casts, are some of the year’s best new comedies, and SNL has made it a point to diversify their cast members.
And while I’m still working on getting that sort of reach with my books, I like to use diverse casts in my stories when I can, and I think that that’s some of the best parts of my books. In my thesis novel Rose, half the main cast, including antagonist Akira, are Japanese. In Laura Horn, many of the characters are black or Hispanic, and I plan to keep that in the rewrite. And in the Reborn City series, most of my characters aren’t white. In fact, Zahara Bakur, my protagonist, is an Arab Muslim. And if in an adaptation of any of my works, the white-washing I’ve described above was used in the casting process, I’d be very, very upset.
Because that’s not how the characters should be. We want to see characters who look like us. I’m lucky that I see a lot of white characters. Occasionally I see a Jewish character, though they’re either secular or ultra-Orthodox Jews. But what about others? There have only been two black superheroes in the movies these past couple of years, and they’ve been sidekicks to the white superhero. And what about Hispanic or Asian heroes? Where are the Native American characters?
I think Hollywood is making a great mistake in not diversifying their casts and insisting on the big actors. I’m not saying that white actors no longer have roles in movies. But I do think that there needs to be more roles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and other groups and ethnicities in Hollywood movies. It’s not a moral thing. It’s because the world is becoming more diverse every day. The media we consume should reflect that. After all, the media reflects the world, doesn’t it? So reflect the world as it is, Hollywood. And that’s a beautifully diverse landscape of many different groups and peoples with a thousand different stories to tell.