Dear Hollywood Executives,
From the Golden-Age of Hollywood to a Modern Blockbuster, whitewashing is something that you never really cared about. It does more damage then you could understand. When thinking about how long this issue has been prevalent, I must turn to the first film ever shown at the White House. In the year 1915, the film Birth of a Nation was shown at the White House, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized African-Americans in the South. The film follows the story of two white families, one from the north and one from the south. The film demeans black people and has “White actors wearing blackface play buffoons.” (Rampell “2015). Yes, most films today are not as extremely racist as that, but there are examples. From films as big and high budget as Doctor Strange to the monumental failure, to the impressive failure Gods of Egypt, the issue is prevalent.
As a filmmaker, I go into a theater with the understanding that what I am about to see has been crafted for months in pre and post-production. I know how much thought is put into films, especially with millions of dollars on the line. Casting is a big part of the preproduction side, and sometimes you need a big name actor to get the movie greenlit for funding, but young adolescents do not understand that. You must realize that young children of color in America grow up in a society where white is the “default” race. Children of color in America, specifically, black children are not exposed to positive reflections of themselves in the media. Johnson & Wales University Kai Nelson states that “Black children, sometimes younger than eleven, are targeted by law enforcement and are brought to criminal court at rates much higher than young white children.”. By creating characters that are “stereotypical” to one’s race, you create more reasoning for people outside that race to think they are correct.
People of color are not given an opportunity to be positive role models in the media, and most films consist of a massive white cast. When there is a person of color, they are usually a stereotype. Viola Davis is the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a drama. She said in her speech, “And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”. As a highly regarded woman in the industry her words should not be taken lightly. Her comment in the speech highlights the fact that people of color are frequently overlooked. People of color tend not to be cast infamous roles or main characters, but there are exceptions. For example Black Panther, Shang-Chi, and Spider-Man are all characters that are/have been represented by a person of color.
Something to think about is that in the first two examples I mentioned, their characters have firmly to do with their race. Marvel has been becoming better at casting off talent and bringing new ideas into their Universe. They have cast Zendaya as classically white and redheaded Mary Jane “MJ” Watson. They are also currently working on Falcon and the Winter Soldier for Disney+. The show revolves around who will become the next Captain America. I think the idea of a Black Captain America is something this world needs to see, but not only this world, Hollywood.
Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 anime cyberpunk film based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. It was recently remade in 2017, and performed poorly at the box office. The main reason was the whitewashing of the film, especially with the lead character being portrayed by Scarlett Johanson. Ghost in the Shell is one of the most popular intellectual properties in Japan. According to an academic journal, “By 2012, the movie video and the DVD had about 1.3 million sales worldwide.” (Mizukoshi “Perils of Hollywood Whitewashing?: A review of Ghost in the Shell movie” 2018). The Wachowski Brothers were even inspired by the anime to create The Matrix. Scarlett Johansson plays the role of Major Mira Killian, in the 2017 live-action remake. The film itself tried to justify its choice in whitewashing. Scarlett Johansons character is white after being transformed into a full cyborg. But, in the movie, we see that Johansson’s character is Asian before the transformation. Her character’s mother is a Japanese actor. When the Touchstone Studios originally announced I remember the outrage all over the internet, and honestly, it was inevitable. The anger should have been expected. A topic that was and still is coming up all over the internet was how Scarlett Johanson is one of the top paid actors of the past five years. Scarlett Johanson has been caught in a lot of negative press for some of the comments she’s made, including Woody Allen and whitewashing. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Scarlett was cast as Dante’ Tex’ Gill in the drama Rub & Tug. Jean Marie Gill was assigned female at birth, but assumed the identity of a man with the name Dante’ Tex’ Gill while running a massage parlor and sex work business in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 80s. Johanson said in regards to her casting in the film “‘You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job. ‘I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions. ‘I think society would be more connected if we just allowed others to have their feelings and not expect everyone to feel the way we do.’, (Yasharoff 2019). This all came a whole year after the debacle of Ghost in the Shell. Johanson is just a mainstream example of a big problem. Hollywood does not learn. After Ghost in the Shell, you should have taken a step back to acknowledge your faults.
It is evident that whitewashing is an issue and why it’s essential to make a difference. Directors tend to talk about the money big Hollywood actors bring, but, as we see, that is not always the case. The detriments it does to young and old people of color everywhere is far worse than a commercial failure at the box office. When I see a film and know what the history of a character is, the performance becomes cringy and distracting like I’m watching a dumb college kid wearing a racist costume on Halloween. The fact that whitewashing can tend to hurt the box office success of a film mostly leads me to wonder why this is still even happening in Hollywood? Is it just institutionalized racism? When it happens, it is harmful, racist, and often inauthentic to the history the story is telling. It is unfair to the people and history you are telling on the big screen. Hopefully, soon you will take a look at the past and change the status quo of Hollywood.
Mizukoshi, Kosuke (2018) “Perils of Hollywood Whitewashing?: A review of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ movie,” Markets, Globalization & Development Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 6. DOI: 10.23860/MGDR-2018-03-01-06 Available at: https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/mgdr/vol3/iss1/6https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/mgdr/vol3/iss1/6
Nelson, Kai, “Where’s the Representation?: The Impact of White Washing on Black Children” (2016). Academic Symposium of Undergraduate Scholarship. 35.https://scholarsarchive.jwu.edu/ac_symposium/35
Rampell, Ed. “’The Birth of a Nation’: The Most Racist Movie Ever Made.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Mar. 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/03/the-birth-of-a-nation/
Yasharoff, Hannah. “Scarlett Johansson Defends Casting: ‘I Should Be Allowed to Play Any Person, Tree or Animal’.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 15 July 2019, http://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2019/07/14/scarlett-johansson-slammed-controversial-casting-comments/1728444001/.