It’s no secret that Hollywood has issues with diversity both behind and in front of the camera—#oscarssowhite is just the tip of the systemic iceberg. In the last few years, there have been several high-profile cases of a studio/producer/director “whitewashing” a character, opting to cast a famous white actress in a role suited (and sometimes explicitly written for) another race. We’re looking at the most recently egregious insensitive casting choices to determine if Hollywood is actually becoming less diverse.
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell: A huge social media storm has erupted over Johansson being cast as Major Motoko Kusangi in the Japanese anime and manga classic. Caught in the eye of the storm is screenwriter Max Landis, who posted a five-minute video about the “broken” cultural system that he says demands and rewards this type of casting—and it’s also an interesting take at how the pool of A-list actors has gotten much smaller, and much whiter, since the 90s.
Zoe Saldana in Nina: What was clearly a passion project has been an absolute PR nightmare for the producers. Variety called it “misconceived” (and not simply because of Zoe’s casting). Buzzfeed has coined it a “disaster movie”—even the team behind it has conceded defeat. Darkening Zoe’s skin and using a prosthetic nose was clearly an issue, but not the only one: Nina’s official legacy runs a Twitter account that told Zoe to “take Nina’s name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life.”
Rooney Mara in Pan: When Mara was cast as the American Indian princess Tiger Lily in Pan, a petition calling for Warner Bros to recast her role garnered 96,000 signatures—that’s a lot of discontent. Rooney did not “play” the character as a specific ethnicity, telling Cinemablend, “[Director Joe] showed me all of these images that he had of all of these different cultures around the world, and he explained to me what his vision was for the native village. It made sense to me. They are natives of Neverland, a completely made-up place. Then it made sense to me.” Later, she expressed regret at being caught up in the controversy.
Emma Stone in Aloha: According to the Sony hack emails, Cameron Crowe thought this film had the potential to be a classic like his beloved Say Anything. (It ended up more like Elizabethtown.) Emma Stone was cast as Allison Ng, a woman of Hawaiian and Asian descent (Crowe said she was based on a real-life woman whose heritage was not immediately apparent). Stone called the controversy “eye opening” and said she learned a lot about systemic whitewashing in the discussion. That wasn’t the only casting criticism to recently fall on Emma—Vulture did a story on movies with love stories between young women/much older men, focusing on her, ScarJo and Jennifer Lawrence. How out-of-touch is Hollywood? Let us count the ways….
So what now? It’s become the chicken and the egg controversy: some think Hollywood adheres to the status quo, while others insist Hollywood creates it. As the debates flare up and fan out on social media, typically it’s the actors being taken to task for accepting a job in a very fickle industry. How do the studios fit into this—and the audience?
And seriously—why did Aloha and Pan suck so bad?! The debate continues.