From D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" back in 1915 to the #OscarsSoWhite boycott of the 88th Academy Awards, Hollywood hasn't exactly had the smoothest relationship with race. While a large portion of this disconnect between the film industry and minority groups has fallen onto the black community through avenues like the blaxploitation films of the 1970s and white actors dominating leading roles in many genres in the present day, a string of recent and upcoming releases has drawn more attention to the whitewashing of Asian characters and stories.
Whitewashing — recasting a role or retelling a story to place a white person (predominantly a man) at the forefront of the action — has been happening in Hollywood for years. A laundry list of famous white actors have been cast as Asian characters during their careers, either for the effect of stereotyping a race for laughs (as in Mickey Rooney's difficult-to-watch depiction of the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") or because having a white male powerhouse leading a film was thought to be a safer bet than an using Asian actor, which is how John Wayne ended up portraying Genghis Khan in 1956's "The Conqueror."
Though the Rooneyish stereotyping roles of the past have died down (but not died out) in the modern era, Hollywood still has a serious John Wayne problem with casting white actors in Asian roles. The American live-action remake of 1995's Japanese anime classic "Ghost in the Shell," one of the more egregious examples in a recent memory overflowing with egregious examples, is set to be released this week.
The film stars Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Mokoto Kusanagi, also known as The Major, the leader of an assault force of cybernetically enhanced officers in a future Tokyo. Aside from casting a white woman in an Asian role, the American version has her known solely as The Major, dropping her Japanese name for Western audiences.
From a genre and star-power standpoint, I can understand to some degree the casting of someone like Johansson for the role of The Major. She's one of the most bankable stars on the planet at the moment and one who has maintained a niche with sci-fi fans most likely to be lining up to see "Ghost in the Shell."
But that star power doesn't explain the apparent need for more subtle removals of characters' Asian identities (like a Japanese name) in a movie that otherwise features robotic geisha assassins and futuristic Tokyo cityscapes. That's picking and choosing with artistic license to preserve the exoticism that the Asian setting and origin of the story presents while coddling an assumed white audience with faces and names they might be more "comfortable" with.
The remake of "Ghost in the Shell" and other films like it work to capitalize on the cool of a culture while denying the identity of the people responsible for creating it. It's not a new problem, but it's one that Hollywood should by now be making steps to acknowledge and correct.
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