On Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter published an opinion piece penned by producer Gavin Polone, wherein he discussed his thoughts on Whitewashing amidst the “Hellboy” controversy and the implications that recasting an Asian character had on diversity in cinema.
In it, he argued that the role of Major Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character, had been “reconceived” for Caucasian actor Ed Skrein; furthermore, he attempted to establish the line on where Whitewashing begins and ends, acting as the authority figure for all things race-related in media.
“It is unfortunate, though, that actor Ed Skrein felt he had to drop out of the new Hellboy movie because some disagreed with him being cast in a part that is Japanese-American in the comic. It’s not as though Skrein would have been a better economic choice than Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-American who replaced him. Actually, I think Kim is better from a marketing perspective. The filmmakers were making a creative choice in going with Skrein, and the outside pressure to change creative decisions because a fictional character was one race or another is a double-edged sword. After all, a similar creative decision led Marvel to change Nick Fury, who is white in the Avengers comic, and cast Samuel L. Jackson, which was an inspired move and led to greater diversity in the franchise. And if those who protested Skrein wanted true ethnic alignment with the comics, they should still be upset that a Japanese-American wasn’t cast.”
Of course, therein lies the problem — despite his eloquent tongue and relatable childhood experiences, Polone is not, nor has he ever been, an Asian-American actor or media consumer; without this context, his article can be dangerously taken as fact, reshared without thought or criticism to his blatantly incorrect claims.
Polone brings up a valid point on Whitewashing, although he’s certainly not the first to do so: there are clear instances where Whitewashing is bad, such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in “The Prince of Persia”, but then there are murky areas regarding Whitewashing where it’s not so apparent. To illustrate this, he brings up Randall Park in “Fresh Off The Boat”, a Korean-American actor portraying a Taiwanese-American man.
“…even without political tensions, is it OK that Randall Park, a Korean-American, plays a Taiwanese-American on Fresh Off the Boat? I could see that go either way. Can any Latino play the part of any Latin American? Can a Spaniard play a Peruvian? I’m not sure.”
In essence, he establishes that he is unsure as to whether or not POC actors can play another ethnicity interchangeably, although he positions it in such a way that the reader is lead to believe that this kind of casting is problematic.
What’s missing, however, is what an actual actor of color may think of the situation; coincidentally, Yoshi Sudarso threw his hat into the ring just last week on the matter, offering not only his thoughts but inviting others to take part in the conversation.
My two cents on the whole situation. Agree/disagree, let’s talk about it. Let’s keep it positive y’all. pic.twitter.com/7MustsFjrh
— Yoshi Sudarso (@yoshi_sudarso) September 14, 2017
The stark contrast between the two, where Polone looks inward for answers while Sudarso offers an opinion to jumpstart a larger discussion, is telling: POC, not White people, should be coming together to define what Whitewashing is, what’s acceptable, and how to work through potential “gray zones”. It’s surprising that The Hollywood Reporter published Polone’s monologue over Sudarso’s inclusive conversation, but then again, that’s the media for you — giving White men undeserved authority at the cost of a POC actor’s exposure.
Perhaps that’s one of the “gray zones” of Whitewashing Polone was discussing; after all, he might argue, the role of an authority figure was reconceived for him — Sudarso, or any actor of color that lives and breathes the consequences of Whitewashing on a daily basis, wouldn’t have even entered into this narrative, lest we “set a dangerous creative precedent that impacts Hollywood and could even stunt efforts toward inclusion”.
But Polone continued, digging in his heels at his attempts to further define Whitewashing without even appearing to have consulted someone whose livelihood is directly affected by it.
“Where the ‘whitewashing’ label is misapplied is when a character is changed from an ethnicity in the source material to another to accommodate a specific actor. This is not the same as casting someone of one race to play a character of another. Much has been made of Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Ghost in the Shell, whose character in the original Japanese anime was, of course, Japanese; and Tilda Swinton being cast in Doctor Strange as the Ancient One, a character who was Tibetan in the comic. Neither of these examples was evidence of the distasteful racism of white actors playing a race other than their own, but rather the common business choice of adapting a property for a wider audience. The Ghost in the Shell filmmakers changed the location from Japan to a nonspecific future world, with the intent of making the premise more accessible to a global audience. In moving the location from Japan, the film didn’t need its heroine to be any specific ethnicity (not to mention that she was a robot); what she did have to be was a big star capable of justifying a huge budget, and Johansson is that.”
The crux of his argument and defense of Skrein’s role in “Hellboy” hinges on the ill-conceived notion that changing a character’s source ethnicity to match the actor’s ethnic background is somehow more palatable than interchangeably using Asians to play any other Asian. The reason behind this, he asserts, is to make the movie “more accessible to a global audience”.
What Polone, and many other people in his position, fail to address is just how damaging (and untrue) that sentiment actually is — taking a POC character and changing it to be a White one is by and large the very definition of Whitewashing. To think that millions of Asians across the globe have been saying this for years, only for a White person in his position to be almost willingly tuning their message out is infuriating. And it begs the question:
What is it about Asian people, places, and stories that makes them inaccessible to a global audience — an audience dominated by Asian people?
Why, in 2017, where the most popular movie franchises overflow with diversity alongside studies that prove Whitewashed atrocities like Ghost in the Shell are set up for failure, can we not take the same chance on an Asian actor that we would a White one — especially in a story centered around people who look like them?
It’s time to rethink how we approach race in media; not as consumers, but as producers, directors, and anyone else involved. Instead of reaching inwards for an answer to a controversial topic, these people need to look outwards to the ones Whitewashing affects.
Actual Asian actors have spoken, Polone. It’s time you, and the rest of Hollywood, listen.
Feature Image (left) via YouTube / Entertainment Tonight