Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) and American Indians in Film and Television are calling out Paramount Pictures for its whitewashed film “Annihilation,” which opens Feb. 23.
The sci-fi movie, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel from his best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy,” showcases four women who are on a journey to Area X, an unspoiled, idyllic landscape separated from the rest of society, where 11 previous expeditions met with mysterious and tragic fates. Leading the 12th effort is “The Biologist” Lena, played by Natalie Portman.
According to the second novel, “Authority,” Lena is of Asian descent: “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.”
“The author clearly depicts the character as … high-cheekboned, which reflects her strong Asian heritage,” says Alieesa Badresia, MANAA board member. “But instead of hiring an actress of Asian descent to play the Biologist, a white actress, Natalie Portman, was chosen.”
The novel also includes the Psychologist, whom VanderMeer describes as being half American Indian/half white. However, the role went to Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress of Austrian and Russian descent.
“Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book,” says Badresia. “He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters, and those roles could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those communities.”
“We are not surprised by the Whack-a-Mole diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up,” says Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film & Television and member of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, which, along with MANAA, has met with TV and talent agency executives since 1999 to push for diversity.
Although Skyhawk is not calling for a boycott of the movie’s theatrical release, he says, “The biggest stance people can take is to deny the filmmakers the $16 or whatever it costs to go see the film. Consider that the movie itself is not utilizing available actors from those specific ethnicities: Asian and American Indian.”
Recently, American Indian characters have been played by white actors: Rooney Mara portrayed Tiger Lily in “Pan,” while Johnny Depp was Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.”
“Who could’ve played the American Indian character in Annihilation?” asks Skyhawk. “Tanaya Beatty (‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1’) would’ve been my first choice. Her experience could not be denied; she was on NBC’s ‘Night Shift’ for two seasons.”
According to an interview with Nerdist.com, Garland claimed that he was not aware of the ethnic background of the characters. “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”
”I find it hard to believe that Garland didn’t ask the author about the direction the next two books in the trilogy were heading,” says MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki. “After all, Paramount — hoping to turn it into a movie franchise — bought the rights to the trilogy in 2013, all three books were released within seven months in 2014, and Garland signed on to shoot the film in October of that year after all of the novels had come out. In any case, as both director and author had stayed in touch during production, we wish VanderMeer had told Garland about the ethnicities of the Biologist and Psychologist.”
The film’s marketing campaign started at a time when Ed Skrein’s resignation from a role in the “Hellboy” reboot written for an Asian character was heavily publicized. In addition, the controversy involving Eurasian actress Kelsey Asbille’s portrayal of American Indians in “Wind River” and “Yellowstone” led to boycotts from the American Indian community.
This is not the first time Paramount Pictures has distributed a film that involved whitewashing. Last year, the studio released “Ghost in the Shell,” which was based on the popular manga of the same name. Scarlett Johansson accepted the role of Motoko Kusanagi, even when she told the press she would never play someone of another race.
In 2013, Paramount’s “Star Trek Into Darkness: featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh, an Asian Indian character. In 2010, the studio’s “The Last Airbender” was based on a popular Saturday morning cartoon series populated with nothing but Asian and Inuit characters. M. Night Shyamalan — himself Asian American — took “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and cast white actors as the good guys on the good worlds and Dev Patel as the bad guy leading the bad world.
“Annihilation” follows in a long line of films based on source material that included Asian characters but who were whitewashed by being played by white actors in their movie versions. They include “The Martian,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Dr. Strange,” “The Descendants,” and “21.”
In 2015, MANAA led the media outcry against Cameron Crowe’s film “Aloha,” where most of the cast members were white, Native Hawaiians only spoke in a seven minute scene, and white actress Emma Stone played a character that was supposed to be half Hawaiian/Chinese. Crowe later apologized.
According to MANAA President Robert Chan, “‘Annihilation’ represents a continuation of the systemic whitewashing that has been going on in Hollywood for a long time. Alarmingly, it has been increasing in frequency, despite the fact that most of these films lose money. This practice has got to stop. Today’s audiences expect multiracial casts in entertainment, as they reflect the multicultural environment in which they’ve grown up.”
MANAA, formed in 1992, launched a nationwide campaign against the 1993 film “Rising Sun” and has consulted on media projects including Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” and ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” It is a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) and Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition which, since 1999, has met regularly with the top four television networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — pushing for more diversity both in front of and behind the cameras.