Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) — the only media watchdog group regularly monitoring how the mass media portrays and covers people of Asian/Pacific Islander descent — is criticizing director Ridley Scott for not allowing Asian American actors to play significant Asian American characters in his film version of “The Martian.”
In the 2014 best-selling novel by Andy Weir, NASA’s director of Mars operations is Dr. Venkat Kapoor, a decidedly Asian Indian character who identifies religiously as being “a Hindu.” In Scott’s film, his name is changed to Vincent Kapoor, and he is played by British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who says his father was “a Hindu” but that his mother was “Baptist,” implying his father was Indian but his mother was black.
Mindy Park, acknowledged by Weir as Korean American, is played in the movie by Mackenzie Davis, a white blonde actress, for Fox’s big-screen version.
Both play crucial roles in NASA’s attempt to rescue astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who’s been left on Mars by his crew, who thought he died in a sand storm. Park is the woman who notices movements of the facilities the astronauts left behind on the planet’s surface, which indicates that Watney is still alive. She alerts Kapoor, who then strategizes with the rest of NASA on how to contact and rescue the astronaut.
When he gets an idea of how to do just that, Kapoor flies to Pasadena to meet the director of Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Bruce Ng (played in the film by Benedict Wong). Ng and his people are later crucial in building a probe that would help send food to Watney as well as other alternatives to rescuing him. Kapoor, Park, and Ng work together throughout the film to help achieve that.
“Was Ridley Scott not comfortable having two sets of Asian Americans talking to each other?” asks MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki. “So few projects are written specifically with Asian American characters in them and he’s now changed them to a white woman and black man. This was a great opportunity to give meaty roles to talented Asian American actors — and boost their careers — which would’ve enabled our community to become a greater part of the rescue team. This feel-good movie, which has attracted Oscar buzz, shouldn’t get any awards for casting.”
Late last year when Scott released his expensive critical flop Exodus: Gods and Kings (also released by Fox), he was criticized for casting white actors in the lead roles (Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver etc.) and dark-skinned Middle Easterners in the secondary, servile, or villainous parts. Scott reasoned, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Aoki points out: “Kapoor and Park weren’t even the main characters of the film. Was the director afraid that having too many Asian American characters would prevent 20th Century Fox from approving his casting, or that it would be a turn-off to the audience? It didn’t stop the book from becoming a best-seller.”
“The Martian” follows a long line of films based on source material that included Asian characters who were “white-washed” by being played by white actors in their movie version.
In “21,” based on the best-selling novel “Bringing Down the House,” where an MIT math teacher taught some of his math students how to win at blackjack in Vegas, the professor, most of the students, and the one who made the most money in “Sin City” were Asian American. In the film version, they were played by mostly white actors including Kevin Spacey, Brit Jim Sturgess, and Kate Bosworth, with the smallest screen time for Asian American actors Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira.
In 2010, M. Night Shyamalan — himself Asian American — took “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a popular Saturday morning cartoon series populated with nothing but Asian and Inuit characters, and cast white actors as the good guys on the good worlds and Dev Patel as the bad guy leading the bad world.
Scarlet Johanssen has been hired to portray Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” based on the popular anime series of the same name. Tilda Swinton will play The Ancient One in Marvel’s “Dr. Strange,” although in the comic book, the character was an old Tibetan man.
“This insulting practice of white-washing has got to stop,” said MANAA President Aki Aleong, an actor who’s been in the business for 60 years. “Alarmingly, it has been increasing in frequency. Today’s audiences expect multiracial casts in entertainment, as they reflect the multicultural environment in which they’ve grown up. In fact, three of the television series that are doing very well this television season star Asians actors: ‘Fresh off the Boat,’ ‘Quantico,’ and ‘Dr. Ken.’”
Earlier this year, MANAA led the media outcry against Cameron Crowe’s film “Aloha,” where most of the cast members were white, 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.
Scott did not immediately respond to media requests for comment.