White Actors in Asian Roles — Not Just Ghost in the Shell

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Copyright DreamWorks 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017
The casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” is just the most recent “whitewashing” that has created controversy and played at least a contributing factor to the poor results at the box office. Audiences have understandably objected to having white actors play Asian characters. It might be different if it ever worked the other way, if actors of color were cast in roles written for white actors. But with so few explicitly Asian characters in movies and so few Asian actors being cast in lead roles, it is especially troubling. To make matters much worse (SPOILER ALERT) the cybernetic characters played by Johansson and white actor Michael Carmen Pitt are both supposed to be Japanese humans who now have white-featured robot “shells” or bodies.

This is just one of many examples in current and past productions. Asian characters have been played by white actors for decades, including Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Warner Oland, Peter Lorre, and Mickey Rooney. More recently, Cameron Crowe was sharply criticized for casting Emma Stone in “Aloha” as a woman with some native Hawaiian heritage.

In the LA Times, Jen Yamato and Justin Chang wrote about this issue:

Chang: We seem to have fallen into a dispiritingly familiar pattern where Hollywood-goes-East blockbusters are concerned, and it usually starts with the announcement of some fresh casting outrage: Tilda Swinton enlisting as a Celtic version of a Tibetan mystic in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” or Matt Damon being called in for white-hero duty on “The Great Wall” (a China-U.S. co-production, incidentally).

From there, the woker-than-thou factions of the press and public react with unsurprising anger. The marketing campaign becomes a passive-aggressive exercise in damage control. The movie is released, and the casting is duly dubbed either the worst thing ever or a complete non-issue. And neither reaction, I think, really gets at the more complicated truth of the matter….I liked Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” just as I liked Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” And I was perfectly fine with Damon in “The Great Wall,” in which he’s not really a white savior at all, and is in fact amusingly upstaged by director Zhang Yimou’s make-China-great-again production design.

As she demonstrated in “Lucy” and the masterful “Under the Skin,” Johansson can be a mesmerizing screen presence, with the kind of otherworldly aura that naturally lends itself to science fiction. All of which is to say: It’s possible to admire a performance while still acknowledging the ways in which it’s — to use a word I loathe, but sometimes there’s no alternative — problematic.

Yamato: It’s one thing for a film or television show (see Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and Netflix’s upcoming Americanized “Death Note”) to be problematic. It’s more insulting for filmmakers — and the stars whose white faces are plastered on posters and billboards in front of exotic Asian scenery — to ignore the damage their failures have wrought. That is both irresponsible and cowardly….But whether you call it yellowface, white saviorhood, race-bending, erasure — it’s all whitewashing if a story rooted in Asian origins or an Asian setting defaults to a white normative reality. The filmmakers behind these properties, nearly all white men, are forcing white preference and white privilege into the spotlight and blaming it on a system that necessitates bankable white stars. The more these movies bomb while others like “Get Out” flourish, the more these excuses get exponentially more tedious.

And in the Hollywood Reporter, four Japanese actresses gave their thoughts. They spoke about some cultural dissonance or outright mistakes they think would have been handled correctly if the filmmakers were Japanese. Some of their comments:

Keiko Agena: It was harder to watch than I thought it was gonna be. To get emotionally invested, you have to really care that she needs to find out who she is. But when she finally meets her mom, my gut felt so weird in that moment.

Atsuko Okatsuka: ScarJo was probably lost. “OK, hold on. So I’m a Japanese woman. I used to be? Wait, I am. I talk to my boss in English even though he speaks to me in Japanese?”…It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.

Even if Hollywood does better on this (and on casting trans and disabled actors in roles reflecting their experience and understanding), we still have the problem of the past. An Asian friend recently wrote to a movie theater about their showing of the beloved Audrey Hepburn classic, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Hepburn’s impeccable elegance cannot make up for the outrageously offensive portrayal of her Japanese neighbor, played by Mickey Rooney.

The theater manager’s thoughtful response:

I can say that this is a constant issue of programming a repertory theater. Showing anything from classic Hollywood is generally at the very least problematic, and in many cases, such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” an example of a horrible history of filmmaking. While this is not a plea to justify our decision to book this film, I hope you can understand that we do not condone every element of all of the films that we show and when booking classic film this issue is unavoidable. This film is playing as a part of a ‘music in film’ series; they will be performing a song from this film later in the month. I do hope the rest of our programming, specifically the new indie and modern repertory titles, reflect our commitment to diversity, progressivism, and positive depictions.

After a further exchange, the manager said they would provide some context.

On the evening of the screening, I will be present to introduce the film and to discuss Rooney’s performance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in order to shed light on these issues in classic Hollywood cinema and to let the audience know that both institutions are opposed to such portrayals. We will also be distributing a handout that discusses Rooney’s character and the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films.

That is the best we can do for movies of the past — to raise the issue and insist that it be addressed. We can do a lot better with movies of the future, to make sure that the history of racial stereotypes in Hollywood films is coming to an end.

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The Mindy Project: Imagine Mindy as a White Male

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Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” has a sharp season ender as Mindy, applying for a job, gets to see how her life would be different if she were white and male.  The white male version of Mindy is played by “Veronica Mars” bro Ryan Hansen, and as the white male version of herself, Mindy learns (as Eddie Murphy did in his famous SNL sketch) that in a job interview, no one asks a man about balancing work and home responsibilities.  New York Magazine’s Vulture column notes:

When you’re privileged, “Your life is so carefree, you start wondering why other people don’t just help themselves. Because you think life is just as easy for everyone else.” But Mindy misses being interesting and different, so she wishes to go back to being an Indian woman. Plus, she gets to bond with Dr. Lee over fettuccine at the hospital. A perfect little lesson in privilege and allyship, wrapped in a sweet, sitcom form.

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Get Out

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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Free Feb 13-17: Ebook About Bessie Coleman, First Black Woman Aviator

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In honor of Black History Month — John Holway’s fascinating ebook about Bessie Coleman, the first place woman aviator, is FREE February 13-17, 2017. Enjoy!

Copyright Miniver Press 2014
Copyright Miniver Press 2014

Back in the 1920s planes were made of wood and cloth held together with wire. And back then everyone knew blacks couldn’t fly, and neither could women. But this spunky black woman from the cotton fields of Texas did loops above the Eiffel Tower, walked on wings above America, and jumped off planes to the oohs and gasps of crowds.

Bessie could also do a mean Charleston on the dance floor while guys lined up on both sides of the Atlantic. Her admirers included France’s top World War I ace, an African prince, a Florida millionaire, Chicago’s top black newspaperman, and its top black gangster.

She survived broken bones and some broken hearts. She was the first person, man or woman, to open the skies to black pilots. She helped open grandstands on the ground as well, refusing to perform unless everyone could buy a ticket.

She inspired generations of flyers. After years of neglect, she has at last been recognized as one of the leading figures in aviation, African-American, and women’s history.

Tributes include a postage stamp, a street named for her at O’Hare airport, and her photo tucked into a spacesuit worn by the first black woman astronaut as she flew on the space shuttle.

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Free Ebook — Bloody Ground: Black Rifles in Korea

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Copyright 2015 Miniver Press
Copyright 2015 Miniver Press
In honor of Black History Month, John Holway’s extraordinary book, Bloody Ground: Black Rifles in Korea is free for five days. (It’s also available on paperback for $18).

In Bloody Ground, Black soldiers tell their own stories about fighting in the Korean War. Korea is “the forgotten war.” But to those who fought in it, it was the “unforgettable war.” If the names of all those killed were put on a wall, it would be larger than the Vietnam Wall. And Korea lasted only three years, Vietnam about ten. The agony of the winter of 1950-51 is an epic to compare with Valley Forge and the Bulge. Korea was also our last segregated war. This is the story of the black 24th Infantry Regiment, told in the words of the men themselves. Like all black troops since the Civil War, they were reviled by whites and their own commander for “bugging out” – running before the enemy. The charge can still be read in the Army’s own official histories. Yet the 24th left more blood on the field than their white comrades – if they did bug out, they must have been running the wrong way. It’s a good thing we weren’t with Custer,” one black GI muttered – “they’d have blamed the whole thing on us.” The 24th won the first battle of the war, won its division’s first Medal of Honor, and guarded the shortest and most vulnerable road to Pusan. If the port had fallen, the war would have been lost, leaving a red dagger pointed at Japan. It did not fall. That winter, after the Chinese attacked, the entire American army bugged out in perhaps the worst military disaster in American history. “That,” said another black veteran, “was when I learned that whites could run as fast as blacks.” This is the story of those unsung heroes, who helped turn the Communist tide for the first time. The men bring that forgotten war and their own unsung bravery to life in their own sometimes funny, often heart-breaking, and always exciting words.

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