“Annihilation“, the popular first book of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, is receiving the Hollywood treatment — complete with Whitewashing the main character, a person of Asian descent. Natalie Portman has been cast to play the lead role, the Biologist, instead of a mixed-race Asian person, as described in the book.
Vandermeer’s novels, while lauded and praised for their captivating story line, faced an interesting challenge during its big screen adaptation; none of the characters are ever referred to by their names, choosing their professions instead. In order to uncover any distinguishing features about the characters, readers have to carefully pay attention to every single sentence, as clues about their backgrounds may be hidden in unassuming places.
Attentive readers will remember that Control, the protagonist of the second book in the series “Authority“, describes the Biologist thusly:
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.”
As there are no further clues regarding the Biologist’s heritage, all that can be ascertained is that one side of her family is of Asian descent, the implication being that the other side of her family is not. And with dark hair, dark eyebrows, and high cheekbones, the character appears to be noticeably Asian enough for it to even be considered worth mentioning. Therefore, it can be concluded that the character could have either an Asian parent or grandparent — distant enough that she isn’t definitively “considered Asian” but close enough to leave “strong” distinguishing features.
This could mean that the character could be Eurasian, but could also have African-American, Latino, or Native-American heritage. And while there are plenty of available, talented actresses who could easily fill this role, Hollywood chose Natalie Portman, an Israeli-American, who lacks Asian heritage on either side of her family.
The Biologist is not the only character to be Whitewashed: the Psychologist, another main character, has a Native-American mother and a Caucasian father, yet she is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress with no known Native ancestry.
Vandermeer decided to leave few descriptors about the characters and their backgrounds, making the little information he did leave seem critically important; what’s striking is that he purposefully refuses to name the characters, yet makes it a point to describe their heritage. Their names aren’t necessary, but apparently their lineage is.
The film’s marketing campaign begins as Ed Skrein’s unprecedented move to reject a role meant for an Asian person in “Hellboy” remains fresh in the minds of media consumers; additionally, the controversy surrounding Eurasian actress Kelsey Asbille’s role as a Native woman in “Yellowstone” has prompted boycotts from the Native-American community. All of this is predicated by the consistent Whitewashing surrounding Asian characters in Hollywood, such as in Ghost in the Shell, Dr. Strange, and Aloha.
“Annihilation” follows the story of four women on an expedition to Area X, an Edenic landscape cut off from the rest of the continent that has caused previous teams to commit suicide, kill each other, or contract fatal diseases. The team consists of a Biologist, a Psychologist, a Surveyor, and a Leader, who remain unnamed throughout the trilogy.
“Annihilation” will arrive in theaters on February 23, 2018.