The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition issued the following statement in Los Angeles on May 2.
The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) is troubled by recent developments in which white actresses were selected to play the roles of Asian characters in two upcoming movies.
Scarlett Johansson will play a Japanese cyborg whose name has been changed from Major Motoko Kusanagi to simply “The Major” in the new DreamWorks film adaptation of Japanese anime and manga series “Ghost in the Shell” and Tilda Swinton is playing a character originally written as a Tibetan sorcerer, the Ancient One, in Marvel’s upcoming “Doctor Strange” film.
These casting decisions perpetuate the practice of “whitewashing” roles from original material that features Asians as lead characters. The coalition opposes these casting decisions as they contribute to the exclusion of Asian Americans as well as thoughtful Asian and Asian American narratives from mainstream media.
Whitewashing and “yellowface” (a practice similar to blackface in which a non-Asian character or actor artificially changes their appearance in an attempt to portray East Asian features) are long-standing practices Hollywood has used to discriminate against and exclude people of color.
The history of yellowface in Hollywood includes Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and David Carradine in “Kung Fu,” in which actors’ appearances were altered in an attempt to make them “look Asian.” Our community’s anger around yellowface has been stoked by reports that “Ghost in the Shell” producers tested visual effects to make white actors appear Asian.
In a time when blackface is broadly recognized as a practice that proliferates and sustains racist images and attitudes, it is disheartening that yellowface is not understood to be as insidious or objectionable.
Whitewashing, the more widespread and damaging convention of rewriting and recasting Asian and Asian American characters as white stories — including real-life stories adapted to film — erases Asian Americans from the diverse narratives they experience in our country. Recent examples include the casting of Justin Chatwin as Goku in “Dragonball: Evolution,” several roles in the “Last Airbender” film adaptation, and Emma Stone as Asian American in “Aloha.”
In adapting the book “The Martian” to film, the producers chose to race-bend two leading Asian American characters with black and white actors. Asian American voice actors are similarly excluded in many of the lead roles in Focus Features’ upcoming animated film “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which is set in ancient Japan.
APAMC Co-Chair Daniel Mayeda noted, “Hollywood has sought to justify this casting convention as an attempt to win box office favor, but whitewashed stories have tended to be both financial and critical disasters. Instead of having white actors play Asian roles or make them look more Asian, it would make so much more sense for studios to actually cast Asian Americans. Audiences respond to authenticity and numerous studies have now shown that diversity sells.”
This inauthenticity is illustrated by Marvel’s claim that Swinton is playing a Celtic sorcerer in “Doctor Strange” even though the movie trailer depicts Asian settings and costumes, with nary a Celtic knot in sight. Marvel’s additional explanation that they did not want to depict a Tibetan sorcerer because the Chinese government might be angered is disingenuous; the filmmakers could easily have changed the setting to another region in Asia or to Marvel’s own fictionalized magical region of “K’un Lun” (as featured in “Iron Fist” comics), and kept the Asian elements that they so clearly wish to maintain.
The argument that there are no “A-list” Asian American actors to carry films rings hollow when filmmakers frequently cast little-known white actors to star in big-budget movies. Few knew Chris Hemsworth before he was cast as Thor. The same is true for Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam, who starred in “Tron: Legacy” and “Pacific Rim,” respectively; and despite the mediocre box-office take of those movies, the actors were given prominent roles in subsequent films.
Jim Sturgess starred in two box-office disasters (“Across the Universe” and “The Other Boleyn Girl”) but was still cast in the lead role in “21,” a whitewashed film based on the real-life protagonist Jeff Ma, who parlayed a card-counting system into huge winnings on Las Vegas weekends away from being a student at MIT.
Furthermore, the “not bankable” argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Asian American actors can’t become known or bankable unless they are cast in movies, and yet Hollywood refuses to cast them even for parts that, according to source material, were written for Asians or Asian Americans.
The controversy over Hollywood racism that reached a high point at this year’s Oscar ceremony affects all people of color, including Asian Americans. For Asian Americans, whitewashing our stories and treating yellowface as acceptable lead to the misrepresentation and marginalization of our communities. Failing to include Asian American actors in movies also leaves money on the table, diminishing the ability of filmmakers to appeal to diverse audiences both in the United States and worldwide.
The coalition urges Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of box office successes that have sought authenticity, inclusion and diversity such as Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (2016) and “Big Hero 6,” Justin Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious” films, and Kathleen Kennedy’s contributions to the “Star Wars” film franchise. We also applaud leaders like J.J. Abrams, whose Bad Robot Productions company is instituting diversity policies in its operations and hiring practices.
With people of color becoming the majority in America in a generation (according to census data), let’s work together to end the practice of whitewashing, which reduces opportunities for Asian American actors, contributes to the continued erasure of images of our community, generates inauthentic portrayals, and ultimately limits studios’ potential for financial success.
The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition has agreements with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC committing them to work to increase diversity on-screen and behind the camera. APAMC members include such organizations as the Asian American Justice Center, East West Players, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Visual Communications.