Ed Skrein – the dude who played Ajax in Deadpool — made headlines recently. Not for taking a role but rather for stepping down from one. See, he was tapped to be in the reboot adaption of Hellboy. But the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the comics, and Ed Skrein is decidedly, er, white. Upon finding out that his casting would be whitewashing, Skrein stepped down from the role in order to not be part of that machine that decides to make people-of-color white.
And good on him! This is a guy who’s not a Big Actor and had the opportunity for a Big Role, but turned it down after getting hired because, well, whitewashing. So seriously, cheers to him.
‘cuz whitewashing’s an issue. The movie 21 took a team of mostly Asian mathematicians and made them mostly white. Aloha famously cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character with the last name Ng (as a part-Asian, I can attest that Emma Stone neither looks nor fits the part). Then there’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie which takes the wonderfully Inuit and Chinese inspired cast/cultures of the cartoon and makes the main characters white.
I can go on.
And what the hell, I will!
Dragonball Evolution made Goku white. Extraordinary Measures stars Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, a character whose achievements are based on that of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. Scarlett Johansson plays Major in the American adaption of the decidedly Japanese Ghost In The Shell.
In light of all of that, seeing an actor walk away from a project because he’s a white guy playing an Asian guy is absolutely remarkable. Maybe I have half-a-horse in this race, but there’s a noticeable precedent for making Asian characters (and real people) white in adaptions. Sure, I’ll give something like Doctor Strange a pass for playing around with a stereotype, but there’s a point when it is just recasting a character of color because Scarlett Johansson will get more folks to theaters than Ming-Na Wen.
It’s in this context that Ed Skrein’s choice to step down from Hellboy so remarkable. Or at least unusual. Not too long afterwards, it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim, known for Lost and, more recently, not continuing his role in Hawaiian Five-O because the studio did not want to pay him as much as his white co-stars, would be playing Major Ben Daimio in Hellboy. Which, wow, an Asian actor playing an Asian character (albeit a Korean actor playing a character who’s Japanese)? That sounds like a regular fairytale happy ending.
Now, Ed Skrein should never have been cast in the first place. Duh. But the fact of the matter is that this happens far too regularly. It’s not that there aren’t enough Asian actors to go around, or even (actors of color), it’s that there aren’t that many roles in these big-budget movies for them. And even if there is one, there’s still the chance it’ll go to some white dude instead.
Diversity and representation isn’t just about creating roles and characters, it’s also about making space. It’s partially why I find Star Wars’ new stable of characters so wonderful; they’re consciously making room in their movies and video games for women and people of color. Making the protagonist of Battlefront II a brown woman also means making the choice to not have a white guy in the lead. Something’s gotta give. It’s not always just an easy decision.
So here, at the end of it, there’s a part of me that wants to be hopeful. We got to watch whitewashing happen and then be undone. Maybe this means we’ll see more room for Asians and other actors of color in these big films. And then maybe after that we can split hairs about a Korean-American actor playing a Japanese-American character.
But baby steps!