06 May 2016

Systemic racism in Hollywood

In this Vulture.com (2016), George Takei talks about Hollywood's systematic whitewashing of Asian characters. These comments follow on the casting of white actresses Scarlett Johansson as "Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg leading an elite police task force in a futuristic Japan" (Huffington Post Canada, 2016) and Tilda Swinton "as the Ancient One, a Tibetan male mystic" (New York Times, 2016) in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange features, respectively. While these upcoming features have brought attention to the issue of whitewashing characters in Hollywood, it is by no means a new phenomenon. (Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) comes readily to mind as an example where an Asian character has been portrayed through a stereotypically racist caricature for comedic effect by a white actor.)

As the NY Times questions:
Why is the erasure of Asians still an acceptable practice in Hollywood? It’s not that people don’t notice: Just last year, Emma Stone played a Chinese-Hawaiian character named Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s critically derided “Aloha.” While that film incited similar outrage (and tepid box office interest), no national conversation about racist casting policies took place.
Obviously, Asian-Americans are not the only victims of Hollywood’s continuing penchant for whitewashing. Films like “Pan” and “The Lone Ranger” featured white actors playing Native Americans, while “Gods of Egypt” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” continue the long tradition of Caucasians playing Egyptians. 
In all these cases, the filmmakers fall back on the same tired arguments. Often, they insist that movies with minorities in lead roles are gambles. When doing press for “Exodus,” the director Ridley Scott said: “I can’t mount a film of this budget" and announce that “my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
This is a useful think piece for students who may be used to thinking about racism and white privilege only in relation to whiteness vs blackness. Why can't Scott mount a film with such a massive budget without a white lead actor? What does this seemingly frivolous issue say about race in our society?