Between Iron Fist, Ghost in the Shell and that first Death Note trailer, it’s been a banner month for racially insensitive casting.
But while the problem may be getting extra attention right now, it’s not new and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, either. In fact, with each passing controversy, the excuses have just started to sound more and more familiar.
Hollywood’s racial bias comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s “whitewashing” casting a white actor to play a character who was originally conceived of as non-white, like the Major in Ghost in the Shell or Light in Death Note. (John Oliver has an excellent primer on the industry’s long history of whitewashing here.)
Other times, it might be favoring a white lead character in a narrative that borrows problematically from non-white cultures like positioning Iron Fist‘s Danny Rand and Doctor Strange‘s Stephen Strange as the ultimate practitioners of mystical martial arts that they learned in made-up Asian countries.
Perhaps most insidiously, it can also mean simply overlooking POC talent, and defaulting to white characters and white actors time and time again, even when there’s no narrative reason to do so. We adore Tim Burton and the Coens as much as the next person, for example, but it’s hard to deny that their films tend to be pretty homogenous.
(And we’re just talking about casting here, though the data shows that there’s racial inequality in basically all areas, at basically all levels of the industry. More on that here.)
If there’s a bright side to these seemingly endless controversies, it’s that they’re making headlines moviegoers seem less and less willing to let this kind of prejudice slide. Even as journalists and audiences have become more critical, though, too many stars and filmmakers seem to be stuck pushing the same old defenses.
So in the interest of saving everyone some time, we’ve compiled some of Hollywood’s favorite excuses for favoring white people in casting and some thoughts on why each one falls apart.
Actually, this is a really diverse cast.
Recently used by: J.K. Rowling, who insisted, “Everyone in Fantastic Beasts is not white.”
Why it’s nonsense: This excuse might hold up if it were actually true in any meaningful sense if, in fact, the real problem was that detractors were just woefully misinformed about the makeup of the cast and/or the significance of their roles.
But very often, the “diverse” cast members turn out to be supporting players or even extras, while white stars get the meaty leading roles. Yes, it’s nice that America’s wizarding community has a black female leader in Fantastic Beasts, or that Tiger Lily’s tribe is a racially diverse bunch in Pan. It’s just too bad they get fuck-all to do compared to the white leads.
Even in Iron Fist, which is a bit more evenhanded than some of these other examples, there’s no question of whose story gets top priority and it’s not Claire Temple’s or Colleen Wing’s.
This argument, then, turns out to be disingenuous. It makes no distinction between a high-profile hero and a half-baked love interest, a one-off guest star, or a non-speaking extra.
This is a universal story.
Recently used by: Producer Ari Handel, explaining why Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was about a bunch of white people. “From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race,” he stressed, before going ahead to put his foot in his mouth:
What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesnt matter. Theyre supposed to be stand-ins for all people. Either you end up with a Bennetton ad or the crew of the Starship Enterprise. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, Lets make that not a factor, because were trying to deal with everyman.
Also used by: Lilly Wachowski (Cloud Atlas).
Why it’s nonsense: Leaving aside that it’d actually be really nice to see a cast diverse enough to make up a Benetton ad, why should “everyman” default to white? (We can’t know the ins and outs of casting for Noah, but Handel makes no indication that they ever seriously considered the possibility of, say, an all-Middle Eastern cast.) The assumption here seems to be that only people of color have race, while white serves as a totally neutral default.
Cloud Atlas and Noah might think they’re beyond race somehow, because they’re concerned with lofty ideas but they’re still movies made by and for people who live in this world, with all of our weird racial hangups and troubling cultural contexts.
We wanted to avoid stereotypes.
Recently used by: Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson, who in trying to avoid one controversy face-planted straight into another. It was a challenge from the beginning that I knew I was facing with both Wong and the Ancient One being pretty bad racial stereotypes1960s versions of what Western white people thought Asians were like,” he said. “We werent going to have the Ancient One as the Fu Manchu magical Asian on the hill being the mentor to the white hero. I knew that we had a long way to go to get away from that stereotype and clich.
Also used by: Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger).
Why it’s nonsense: Avoiding stereotypes is a good goal to start with, but casting a white person to play the part of a person of color doesn’t fix that problem. It just creates a different one. The better approach in scenarios like these would be to subvert the stereotype, maybe by using the character to comment on it or simply by fleshing them out so much that they’re not a flat, two-dimensional archetype any more. Or, better yet, start by asking yourself it’s even worth resurrecting such an outdated and possibly racist property in the first place.
But we hired a woman.
Recently used by: Ghost in the Shell star Scarlett Johansson, who used Hollywood’s woman problem to deflect a question about Hollywood’s race problem. “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.”
However, she continued, “having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
Why it’s nonsense: We’re all for seeing more and better female roles, but gender and race aren’t somehow equivalent or interchangeable. Bringing in a white lady doesn’t magically make up for erasing a person of color. Plus, this line of argument conveniently forgets that women of color exist. Ghost in the Shell wouldn’t have been any less female-led if its star had been an Asian or Asian-American woman.
We hired the best person for the job.
Recently used by: Director Travis Knight, addressing why his Japan-set fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings has a mostly-white voice cast. Ultimately, what matters most for us is the ability for an actor to convey the nuance and the emotional truth of the role using the only tool that they have at their disposal, which is their voice, he said. “There are very few actors in the world that can do that. There are a lot of great actors that cant do that.
Why it’s nonsense: “Hiring the best person for the job” sounds all good and fair in theory. But “best” is a subjective measure, and the specific criteria are set by the filmmakers. If they believe the “best” person for a non-white role is a white person, it means the filmmakers decided that racially sensitive casting wasn’t something they felt they needed to address.
(Keep in mind, too, that “best” can encompass all sorts of qualities that have little to do with the actual quality of an actor’s work, like how famous they are or what their public image is. It’s not as if the casting process exists in some artistically pure plane before race is factored in.)
Furthermore, there are plenty of films that seem to fare just fine with racially appropriate casts. Kubo itself was shown up a few weeks later by Moana, which went out of its way to find stars of Polynesian descent and was rewarded with praise in addition to all its of excellent reviews and truckloads of money.
Non-white stars arent bankable.
Recently used by: Ridley Scott, who blamed the business for making his Egypt look so white in Exodus: Gods and Kings. “I cant 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,” he said. “Im just not going to get it financed. So the question doesnt even come up.”
Also used by: Dana Brunetti (21).
Why it’s nonsense: This argument sounds kiiinda pragmatic until you start to break it down. Sure, Exodus star Christian Bale is world famous. But is Joel Edgerton’s international fanbase really that big? Is 21 star Jim Sturgess’? And why are the options here “white A-lister” or “nameless nobody”? Non-white stars exist some of them even starred in Scott’s next movie, The Martian.
This rationale also conveniently forgets that Hollywood doesn’t just employ stars it creates them. Indeed, Sturgess himself was just a scrappy up-and-comer when he landed 21, which would turn out to be one of his first big breakthroughs. Brunetti could’ve used this opportunity to boost an Asian-American actor; he just chose not to.
And yes, while conventional wisdom might state that only white-led movies do well overseas, the conventional wisdom in this case is wrong.
Why would we need non-white people in this?
Recently used by: Tim Burton, justifying the lily-whiteness of Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children. “[T]hings either call for things, or they dont. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, lets have an Asian child and a black,” he said.
“I used to get more offended by that than just … I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, thats great. I didnt go like, O.K., there should be more white people in these movies.”
Also used by: Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!).
Why it’s nonsense: Once again, this argument only makes sense if you assume that white stories and white characters are the default, whereas non-white stories and non-white characters have to be specifically “called for.”
This, by the way, is how you end up with stereotypes: by presuming that, say, a Latino character should only exist if there’s something “Latino” about the story.
And never mind that the blaxploitation genre, which Burton cites in his own defense, was created specifically because black people weren’t being represented in “mainstream” (i.e., white) movies.
This character is supposed to be (or look) white.
Recently used by: Matt Damon (The Great Wall). I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor … it wasn’t altered because of me in any way,” Damon said, adding that he hopes criticism of the film will die down once people see that its a monster movie and its a historical fantasy.
Why it’s nonsense: Of course you can have white characters in a story full of non-white people. Of course some non-white people can pass for white. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to cast a white person as the star of a story about a person or a culture of a different background.
The reason it’s frustrating to see Damon in The Great Wall or Emma Stone in Aloha or Joseph Fiennes in Urban Myths is that it’s hard enough for an actor of color to snag a meaty role without getting shut out of stories that borrow from their culture or revolve around people of their heritage.
In short, as Hollywood continues to drag its feet on casting actors of color, their arguments are only wearing thinner. The only real fix is for this industry to become more inclusive.
That might mean reinventing an old property by bringing in a Native-American lead. Or launching the next big movie star from the pool of overlooked Latino actors. It might even mean gasp! hiring an actual Asian person to play an Asian person.
What it definitely doesn’t mean is returning to the same old excuses for keeping out people of color. We’ve heard it all already, Hollywood. It’s time to write a new story.