Casting Superheroes And The Legacy Of White Hollywood
The latest installment in the ongoing debate about ethnicity and casting of major Hollywood films has arisen due to the casting of actor Henry Zaga as the X-Men's Sunspot in Fox's upcoming New Mutants movie. Zaga, like the character of Sunspot aka Roberto da Costa, is Brazilian. However, while Sunspot has traditionally been portrayed as Afro-Brazilian in the comics, Zaga is white Brazilian.
This is particularly troubling as Sunspot's struggles with racism have formed a significant part of his character and backstory, and he is one of the very few Afro-Latinx heroes in the Marvel universe. There is also the real-world issue of colorism and racism in Brazil which his story relates to. Despite the fact that Sunspot is an admittedly niche character and the New Mutants movie is still some time away from release, this casting has led to a significant outcry about the general pattern of casting white actors to play characters of color in superhero movies.
A Brief Recent History Of The Whitewashing Of Superheroes
One of the reasons that this casting has caused so much upset is that it comes on the heels of several other poor casting choices for superhero movies. Marvel was criticized for casting white British actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, who is a Tibetan man in the comics, in Doctor Strange, and for turning the Jewish-Romani Maximoff twins into white Christian Eastern Europeans in Avengers: Age of Ultron. DC has not been free from controversy either, having cast a white actor to play Arabic character Ra's al Ghul twice (!) in both Batman Begins and Arrow. They also tried to claim credit for diversity by saying that Supergirl's Maggie Sawyer is a Latinx hero, even though they cast an Italian actress to play her.
In contrast, white actor Ed Skrein won praise for stepping down from his role in the Hellboy reboot when it came to light that the character he was cast to play was Asian-American in the comics. The role has since been recast with Koren-American actor Daniel Dae Kim, whom many have agreed is a much more appropriate choice.
Similar whitewashing problems have plagued movies from other genres like the adaptation of anime Ghost in the Shell, the live-action version of the game Prince of Persia, and the historical pic Stonewall.
The harm done by whitewashing is well documented, taking away vital representation from under-represented groups and reinforcing racist attitudes within Hollywood and within the audience. It has also been going on for an extremely long time. So why does this still happen in 2017?
The Internationalizing Of The Hollywood Movie
One force that you would think would counter the whiteness of Hollywood movies is the increasing importance of international appeal. Plenty of Hollywood movies make more than twice as much internationally as they do in the US domestic market, and they are targeted especially at key markets like China, India, Korea, and Japan. In fact, international appeal is so important to the US movie industry that it already effects the way that movies are scripted, made, and marketed
Some styles of movie play to international audiences better than others: while exciting action set pieces and broad character archetypes are fairly universally appealing, dialogue-dependent genres like drama or comedy are much harder to translate. Superhero movies are almost perfectly styled to be appreciable by a broad audience from all over the world, and this is part of why the genre has exploded in popularity in the last 10 years. With this larger audience should come an expectation of broader choices in casting, and diversity has been credited as a key part of the success of the Fast and the Furious movies, especially internationally.
You can see this internationalization effect at work in superhero movies too, albeit in a clunky manner. The version of Iron Man 3 that played in China had several minutes of extra scenes in it, with Chinese characters shown to be key to the plot and a bizarrely brief and uncredited cameo by Chinese superstar actress Fan Bingbing. These scenes were widely mocked by Chinese audiences for being hilariously blatant product promotions, but the fact that they were shot and added to the movie at all is notable. Even the powerhouse of Marvel wants to solidify its appeal in the important Chinese market.
However, this play towards appealing to international and especially Asian audiences has not increased the number of roles for Asian actors. The leads of Hollywood movies are as white as ever, and whitewashing is particularly a problem for Asian characters. What's going on here?
The Legacy Of (White) Hollywood
One answer is the legacy that Hollywood has created around the world. Over the last hundred years, US cinema has become a global touchstone of what a blockbuster movie should be, and that means that audiences have come to accept and expect white actors leading nearly every big movie. Indeed, for all the strong backlash against Ghost in the Shell's whitewashing in western countries, this was considered much less of an issue in Japan, where people were mostly excited to see a big star leading the production and weren't too concerned that the lead actress was white.
Hollywood has created a film culture in which a 'big' movie is, almost by definition, one with a major (white) star in the role. Take recent release The Great Wall, which was made in China, by a Chinese crew, with a plot riffing off aspects of Chinese history. Even with star director Zhang Yimou at the helm, well known to western audiences for Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the project was considered too risky to appeal in the west without adding a famous Hollywood actor as a lead. Hence why audiences were treated to the utterly bizarre sight of Matt Damon leading ancient China's fight against monsters.
Now, this isn't whitewashing exactly, as the character Damon is playing is an original character and not a role which was previously established as Asian. However, it does play into the dated and racist trope of 'white guy goes to Asia and becomes better at Asian things than any Asian person'. See also: Doctor Strange and Iron Fist, in which white dudes travel to Asia to learn ancient wisdom and then become respectively the most powerful sorcerer and the best martial artist in the world.
This all creates a situation in which Hollywood feels entitled to take settings, characters, and stories that are products of Chinese, Japanese, or other distinct Asian cultures, and to slap a white face on them in order to sell them to a US audience. In fact, that is literally the plot of Ghost in the Shell, in which the lead character was 'in reality' a Japanese woman whose mind had been inserted into a body that looked like Scarlett Johansson. Yikes.
What's To Be Done?
I can see the argument which says that making movies is expensive – and big, action-packed, special effects-heavy superhero movies are particularly expensive. So studios don't want to take risks with these multi-million dollar productions, and that means they need to make safe casting choices who are guaranteed to bring in large audiences. You need a well-known face to promote your movie, okay.
But it's not true that the only options for casting a movie are either white Americans or unknown Asian actors. What about the Asian-American stars? If you need a famous face, why not consider someone with clout both in the US and in Asia, like Lucy Liu or Daniel Wu? Where are the starring roles for actors of Asian descent like Ming-Na Wen, Steven Yeun, John Cho, Harry Shum Jr., Donnie Yen, Priyanka Chopra, Naveen Andrews, or Constance Wu? These are just a few examples of actors who could be cast into Asian roles without whitewashing them and still have big star power to bring in an audience.
Not only would casting in this way achieve more diversity and avoid whitewashing, but it can also add more interest to a story. Consider Iron Fist's Danny Rand, who is torn between the mystical philosophies of K'un L'un and the modern business of New York, and feels like an outsider in both worlds. Wouldn't that story be given a deeper meaning if the role was played by an Asian-American actor?
There's no excuse for Hollywood's whitewashing. It deprives people of color of representation and co-opts diverse characters and stories and repackages them as bland, white, watered down versions which appeal to no one, as Ghost in the Shell so clearly demonstrated. It's long past time that hero movies reflected the breadth of their appeal in their casting.