Tag Archives: casting

Stepping Away

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!

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Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.

Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to fit into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.

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