May 10, 2016
By Jessica Goldstein
Hollywood, usually so smitten with sequels, is trying to avoid turning #OscarsSoWhite into a trilogy. As the New York Times reports, a “castigated” film industry is scrambling to avoid a repeat of this and last year’s ceremonies, at which a grand total of zero actors of color received any nominations.
Perhaps taking a hint from Viola Davis, who, upon becoming the first African American to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 2015 Emmy Awards, said, “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,” the movie industry is cranking out “more than a dozen pictures with black issues, actors, and, often, filmmakers,” many of which are poised to be Oscar contenders. Among them are big studio projects, like Disney’s The Queen of Katwe, featuring Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o and snubbed Selma star David Oyelowo, and Sundance darlings, like Southside With You, a.k.a., When Barack Met Michelle, and The Birth of a Nation, a drama about the Nat Turner-led 1831 slave revolt, which was scooped up by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million.
This is all good news, even if the inciting incident, to borrow a term from the movies to talk about the movies, is such an unfortunate and embarrassing one. And, clearly, the Oscars did not exclude black talent due to a lack of options; this year alone could have seen nods for Beasts of No Nation, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Chi-raq. The increase in production of more movies about the black experience — particularly films about black women, like Queen of Katwe and the Taraji P. Henson-starring Hidden Figures — is welcome, overdue, and vital. But it’s not enough.
Inclusion is about more than increasing opportunities for just one underrepresented group. As appalling as the numbers are for black actors in film, the numbers are even worse for other non-white groups, particularly Asians and Latinos.
A 2016 USC Annenberg study on diversity in entertainment found that Asians represented just 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters across film, television and digital series in 2014; Latinos represented only 5.8 percent. More than half of those projects featured zero Asian characters. (By way of comparison, 20 percent of that content did not include a single black character.) Out of any group, including white performers, Latinas are the mostly likely to appear on film partially or fully nude; Latino men are the most likely to be shown in tight or revealing clothing.
Given the absence of opportunities for Asian and Latino talent, it is not too surprising that few Asian and Latino performers have ever been granted the film industry’s highest honor. Only one Asian actress has ever won an Oscar, and that victory — Miyoshi Umeki for Best Supporting Actress — was more than half a century ago. Only one Latino actor has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor: José Ferrer, for Cyrano de Bergerac, in 1950. The Oscar for Best Actress has never gone to a Latina performer; a Latina wasn’t even nominated for Best Actress until 1998 (Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station). The last time a Latina actress won an Academy Award was in 1961, when Rita Moreno took home Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story, a movie in which Natalie Wood, a white woman, played Maria, a Puerto Rican character.
At this year’s Oscars, host Chris Rock revealed the same blind spot, talking about “diversity” and “the exclusion of black actors” as if they were synonymous, interchangeable ideas. Worse yet, he made a terrifically tone-deaf racist joke about Asian children — introducing them as the accountants responsible for tallying the Oscar votes, then saying, “If anybody is upset about this joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids” — one which the kids who participated didn’t even know about until it was too late to back out of the bit.
Maybe an Asian actress would have a better chance of winning an Oscar if the industry powers-that-be stopped casting white women to play Asian characters. Emma Stone was, now rather infamously, cast as Allison Ng, daughter of a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian man and a Swedish woman, in Cameron Crowe's Aloha. The backlash to this whitewashing was so intense that Crowe responded with an official apology. Stone, too, addressed the reaction to the criticism, telling the Guardian that the experience taught her "on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is. It’s ignited a conversation that’s very important.” Her justification for taking the role: “The character was not supposed to look like her background which was a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese.”
One might think that the almost universally-negative reaction both to Stone's casting and the film itself would have an impact on the way other Asian roles in film were cast going forward. But, nope! Scarlett Johansson is starring in Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of a Japanese anime and manga series. In the movie's entire cast, only one actor is Japanese: Beat Takeshi Kitano. Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodnasha, which is the company that publishes the manga in Japan, defended Johansson's casting to The Hollywood Reporter, citing the white actress' "cyberpunk feel" and saying "we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place... This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world."
To exacerbate an already-problematic situation, Screencrush reported that Paramount was using visual effects to make several of the non-Asian actors appear more Asian. According to Screencrush's sources, the tests to "shift [Johansson's] ethnicity" didn't go well, and the results were scrapped right away. Paramount did not deny that the tests took place, but "refute[d] the claim that Johansson was involved," claiming instead that the test was done "related to a specific scene for a background actor which was ultimately discarded."
In an interesting twist, Japanese manga and anime fans don't seem too bothered by the casting, saying that the same phenomenon happens in reverse -- Japanese actors taking over Western roles -- for domestic productions. Also, technically speaking, Johansson isn't playing a white woman so much as a "white cyborg." (Yet the idea of "she's not a woman; she's a robot" did not save Ex Machina from thoughtful criticism about the depiction of an Asian female character.)
Over in the Marvel cinematic universe, which may one day be our only cinematic universe, Tilda Swinton is playing the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a character that is originally a Tibetan-born man. By way of explanation, Swinton told the Hollywood Reporter that the Ancient One "is not actually an Asian character" in the movie. Marvel, perhaps unaware that straight-up erasing an Asian character would not be the best way to handle the situation, issued a statement assuring audiences that "the Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic." In every generation, there is a chosen one, etc.
To make matters even less PR-friendly, Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill went on the "Double Toasted" podcast to say that, while the Ancient One is from Tibet in the comics, "if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, 'Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.'"
Cargill also said that to suggest casting another East Asian actor as the Ancient One would be a not-great idea: "If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet … if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about." When in doubt, blame China? Well, it's working out on Veep! (It's probably not going to work out on Veep.)
In the category of people unimpressed with that rationale, we have Star Trek star George Takei, who wrote on Facebook, "You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots." He elaborated in the comments, writing, in part:
To those who say, "She an actress, this is fiction," remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can't keep pretending there isn't something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?
And even this breakdown only focuses on Latino and Asian actors; it doesn't even begin to get into all the ethnicities lumped together as "other" and barely seen on-screen at all.
Source: Think Progress