The casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell has sparked a conversation on whitewashing in Hollywood again. But the truth is this conversation has been around for years with very little, to no change at all in the casting of whites as characters written for people of color. Most noticeably, Asian actors and actresses are the biggest victims of Hollywood’s way of thinking. Movies like The Grudge and The Ring use Japanese based horror films and lore, and insert Caucasian actors in to the roles. Sometimes the studio would go out of their way to justify the characters being white. An example is how both Shutter and The Grudge deal with Caucasian Americans relocating to Japan in order to use Japanese lore with a white cast. As a fan of Asian cinema, particularly martial arts and crime dramas, I’ve seen this happen for years long before Scarlett caused an uproar with her casting. And every time this particular subject comes up, I’m constantly reminded of an awkward conversation I once had with a Caucasian coworker that ended with him being more honest than I was prepared for.
The conversation I had with a coworker, and friend at the time, took place years ago around 2005. I was big on Asian cinema at the time. I use to force my friends to watch John Woo movies along with a few of my favorite Donnie Yen films. I’d force them to watch films like Versus and The Killer to show how amazing Asian gun fight choreography is. After finally getting my hands on The Killer and A Better Tomorrow (certain Asian films from the 90’s were not released in the best remastered condition until around that time), I wanted to show it off to a few of my friends whom have never experienced the craziness of a John Woo film. So discussing the new additions to my collection with (let’s just call him Jake), I brought up the fact that Hollywood was trying to remake The Killer at the moment. The conversation went on for a while, but came to an end when Jake made a comment that made things extremely awkward.
The conversation went on for a while with me discussing how both The Killer and Oldboy could not be remade properly, and how some Asian films were good enough to just release in America with an English track. This had been done before with a few Jackie Chan films, so it wasn’t a stretch to do. But after making that comment, Jake turned to me and said something I wasn’t prepared for.
“Why? What’s the point of just releasing them here? They’re Asian. No one is going to watch a film with nothing but Asians in it. It just makes more sense to remake it,” he said to me as my jaw dropped open. Ignoring the success of Asian starring films in the early 2000’s such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Romeo Must Die, and anything with Jackie Chan in it such as the Rush Hour films, Jake stood his ground when I called out his views and he protested that no one would be interested in seeing a film with an Asian lead. Being Caucasian, he avoided flat out saying to me, a nerd of color, that it would be more marketable to cast whites instead. But boy, did he ever imply that without outright saying it.
The conversation took another turn when I tried to address his comments directly without all of the fluff around it to make it seem less offensive. The conversation turned to whites in cinema in Asian roles. The dancing around the subject ended, and it became clear that he felt whites are just more marketable in remakes and certain films than people of color, especially Asians. But when I brought up Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance as Kingpin in Daredevil, he contradicted his previous statements. He had stated during his defense of whites being the lead in remakes of Asian films that the best actor for the job should get the role, which just happen to be a white actor most of the time. But despite Daredevil being a massive success regardless of if the film was good or not, and despite Duncan’s performance as the Kingpin being praised by even the most diehard fans, Jake felt that the role should have went to a white actor due to comic book continuity.
The conversation went on and grew more frustrating as he used excuses like “If Blade was cast as a white guy, you’d be upset about it too” in order to protest against Duncan’s casting. The conversation was going nowhere at that point, and I decided to not engage in it any longer. The message Jake was inadvertently giving me was clear. He felt that it was okay with whites playing leads written for Asians because he felt Asians were not marketable, but felt that white characters should stay white. We never discussed films ever again after that, and I didn’t bother to keep in touch when we both eventually found employment elsewhere. But I will never forget the conversation we had that day.
Hollywood in 2005 was not as diverse as Hollywood is in 2016. Jake’s way of thinking could have been a product of the time we lived in. But whenever I hear about whites being cast as characters of color, I think of Jake. Whenever someone uses excuses to justify it, I think of Jake. And whenever someone complains about a black actor or actress playing a white character, or being in a huge film like Star Wars while clearly showing double standards with an white actor or actress playing a person of color, I think of Jake. Because no matter if we like it or not, there are people out there in Hollywood that probably thinks the same way he does. And that is a shame. By the way Jake, I was right. They finally did remake Oldboy with a white lead, and it sucked.