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Daily Reads: Hollywood’s Unchecked Wave of Racial Erasure, ‘black-ish’ Rethinks The Family Sitcom, and More

Daily Reads: Hollywood's Unchecked Wave of Racial Erasure, 'black-ish' Rethinks The Family Sitcom, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. “Doctor Strange,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and Hollywood’s Unchecked Wave of Racial Erasure.
After images of Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson as Asian characters in “Doctor Strange” and “Ghost in the Shell” respectively were released last week, there has been strong backlash regarding the casting and Hollywood’s continual practice of whitewashing. The L.A. Times’ Marc Bernardin examines Hollywood’s unchecked wave of racial erasure with relation to “Doctor Strange” and “Ghost in the Shell.”

Given Hollywood’s tragic, systemic and apparently addictive history of casting white actors to play characters of Asian origin, this sort of thing is nothing new. As far back as 1915 — when Mary Pickford starred in “Madame Butterfly” — producers and directors have had no problem casting white actors and actresses as people of color. John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Quinn, Boris Karloff, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Mickey Rooney, Joel Grey, Linda Hunt, Max von Sydow, Peter Sellers, David Carradine, Mike Myers — and many, many others — have played characters of Asian descent. (And judging by the incredibly ill-conceived jokes at this year’s Oscar telecast, the devaluing of Asian identity isn’t going anywhere.) As American society got “woke,” some of us realized that this kind of thing was not OK. Still, it continued. M. Night Shyamalan cast white actors as the heroes for his adaptation of the inherently Asian fantasy TV show “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Lionsgate ran into a buzz saw of controversy when its first trailer for “Gods of Egypt” showed white actors playing all of the gods of Egypt. The studio was forced to apologize in a press release: “We recognize that it is our responsibility to help ensure that casting decisions reflect the diversity and culture of the time periods portrayed.”But even more troubling and insidious is a newer phenomenon of racial erasure — when in the process of adaptation, filmmakers remove the original racial identities of the characters in favor of … something else. Something Hollywood (wrongly, some might say) perceived to be box-office safe.For Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” — based on the Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill” — the protagonist was named William Cage, a departure from the novel’s Keiji Kiriya. In “The Martian,” Chewitel Ejiofor plays NASA bigwig Vincent Kapoor — a character who in Andy Weir’s novel is named Venkat Kapoor. Which brings us back to Johansson. That first image of “Ghost in the Shell” identifies her only as the Major, carefully not revealing the character’s actual full name. Will she still be playing a character with an Asian name, or has it been rewritten for racial erasure? And ultimately which is worse: Hollywood not casting Asians to play Asians or Hollywood pretending that Asians don’t exist in the first place?

2. In Living Color: Kenya Barris Rethinks the Family Sitcom With “black-ish.”
One of ABC’s very best show is family sitcom “black-ish” about an upper-middle-class African American family and their daily trials and tribulations along with their struggles with identity in an ever-changing society. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, profiles creator Kenya Barris about the origin of “black-ish” and how it rethinks the family sitcom.

Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC family sitcom “black-ish,” slumped on a sofa in his airy home, in Encino, California, his eyelids drooping with fatigue. In the nearby media room, his two young sons, Beau and Kass, played Minecraft on an Xbox. In the kitchen, his wife, Rainbow, who was pregnant with their sixth child, made popcorn. Out in the hall, their three daughters — aged ten, fourteen, and sixteen — yakked and giggled. The family was getting ready to watch the West Coast airing of “Hope,” an episode about police racism which, at varying times, Barris had described to me as both “the one that ruins me” and “maybe my most important episode.” Once, with a resigned shrug, he had said, “Well, the toothpaste is out of the tube.” Like most breakthrough sitcoms, “black-ish” is built on autobiography. It’s narrated by Andre (Dre) Johnson, a black ad executive, played by Anthony Anderson, who has jumped, as Barris did, from inner-city poverty to bourgeois wealth, only to find himself flummoxed by his brood of privileged, Obama-era kids. Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife, who, like the real Rainbow, is a biracial anesthesiologist nicknamed Bow. With a joke velocity approaching that of “30 Rock,” the show, brassy and shrewd, stands out for its rare directness about race and class. As Barris likes to put it, whereas “The Cosby Show” was about a family that happened to be black, “black-ish” is about a black family. In its first two seasons, the show scored laughs from such subjects as whether black parents spank more and how different generations use the N-word; there was a plot about the knowing nod of recognition black men give one another. One hilariously nervy script satirized Martin Luther King Day. (Dre, Jr., admits that he’s never read King’s speech, explaining, “I always kind of zone out when people start to tell me about their dreams.”) Some viewers, especially black ones, have been put off by the show’s title, with its cheeky implication that some people are less black than others. But Barris told me that he was glad he’d resisted ABC’s suggestions to sanitize it, titling it “The Johnsons” — or, absurdly, “Urban Family.” Michelle Obama has called “black-ish” her favorite television show.

3. Why Was This The Best “Girls” Season In Years?
HBO’s “Girls” wrapped up its fifth season on Sunday. The season has garnered the most consistently positive reviews since its first couple years. HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall speaks with co-showrunner Jenni Konner about the successes of this past season.

Alan Sepinwall: Beyond knowing where you have to go to get to the end, the characters are also a lot older than they were at the start, which is a big deal at this stage of their lives. How does that affect the storytelling and the kinds of mistakes the characters can and can’t make at this point?

Jenni Konner:
 Again, the stakes go way up. They are now too old to blow everything off and go, “Well, I’m still trying to figure it out.” No, no, you’re a grown-up. You have to think about it. You have to think about health insurance and not just talk about thinking about it. The job you have starts to define you more, and the floating isn’t as charming. It makes people very anxious, not knowing exactly what they’re doing. I think they’re more careful about their choices — Hannah not as much as the others. But I do think when she broke up with Fran, that’s sort of Hannah gets her groove back. That’s how she gets back to writing. Hannah was making some choices based on how easy things were, and how Fran seemed like the kind of guy she should be dating. She was trying to get on track, having a normal job, and it just didn’t work out for her.

AS: Hannah going down on Ray in the middle of the coffee van was maybe not one of the smarter choices a character made this year.

J.L:
 A hundred percent, but I was surprised that people were more shocked by that than other things she did this year. She also flashed her boss in his office, she slept with the yoga instructor at the retreat, even though she’s probably not gay. She made a lot of bad decisions. That’s what I mean: Hannah, more than most, is still going for stuff that the others might not go for.

A.S.: But how does that affect the storytelling, when you go from having four characters who are all screwing up to varying degrees at the same time, to the other three starting to get it together, and at least for most of the season, Hannah is still being Hannah and doing stupid things?

J.K.:
 She’s doing stupid things, but she’s also, on paper, doing best. She’s got this boyfriend, who’s so great and so nice. And she’s got an actual job, and she’s good at teaching. So it became this idea for Hannah of the tension with her being, maybe the stupid choices are the better choices for Hannah.

4. “The Jungle Book” Points Toward a CGI Future.
Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” opened in theaters last Friday to mostly enthusiastic reviews. The Atlantic’s David Sims examines how “The Jungle Book” points towards a CGI future.

In an era when many big blockbusters like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Interstellar,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are drifting back toward “practical” filmmaking (big sets, with visual effects done mostly in-camera), “The Jungle Book” took the opposite approach. Though the story is set in the jungles of India, the cast and crew never filmed anywhere but a Los Angeles warehouse. Meanwhile, its young star Neel Sethi worked alongside a cast of characters who were created entirely in CGI, and voiced by famous actors like Bill Murray and Lupita Nyong’o, who recorded their parts months later. That it works is a testament to the ongoing evolution of computer-assisted filmmaking, which is getting ever closer to replicating reality. One reason for “The Jungle Book’s” triumph is that it avoids rendering people as CGI creatures, which has historically put off audiences thanks to a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” As the “man-cub” Mowgli, Sethi is a recognizable human amid the film’s soup of visual effects. When the director Robert Zemeckis experimented with motion-capture filmmaking in the 2000s, he made three films that attempted to render real people in 3D-animated form: “The Polar Express” (2004), “Beowulf” (2007), and “A Christmas Carol” (2009). They all came under fire for the waxy, glass-eyed look of their computerized stars, even while they took huge steps in the realm of performance-capture technology. The “Jungle Book” director Jon Favreau didn’t have to worry about that, but his biggest challenge was almost equally tough — getting a convincing performance out of a star who was acting in a vacuum. As detailed in “Wired,” “The Jungle Book” used “pre-visualization” techniques pioneered by movies like “Avatar” and “Gravity”, in which the film’s look — including camera moves, motion-captured performances, and set design — were sketched out before beforehand and created before filming even began. “Everything was mapped against the virtual sets. We designed the sets like you would for a video game,” Favreau said.

5. Why You Should Watch SyFy’s “12 Monkeys.”
The first season of SyFy’s “12 Monkeys,” a TV remake of the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, garnered mostly mixed reviews in its first season, but some critics believe there’s a case to be made for the show. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff argues why “12 Monkeys” is a silly, but haunting series about tested faith.

In one sense, all of our “genre” stories (a term used to denote stories that take place in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres) are religious tales, picking up where the religious pageants and allegories of centuries ago left off. What are, say, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy” but fantasy epics, where travelers visit strange, far-off kingdoms not of this Earth? So it’s easy to see how fantasy and horror — two genres that intersect with the supernatural — fit as evolutions of religious fiction. That argument might seem to make less sense when it comes to sci-fi. After all, it’s a genre based around technology, around things someone has built, not gifts from the gods. Yet “12 Monkeys” shows how easily sci-fi, too, falls into religious patterns. As the series continues, it evolves in a long series of causal loops, where somebody traveling into the past ensures that they will create the future they hoped to change. The series also hints, more and more, that time travel has created itself, that people from the future inspired ideas of how time travel might work in those from the past, so they could invent the machines that would bring those future travelers back to them. Time, in other words, has godlike powers itself. That follows naturally from the Terry Gilliam film that inspired the series (and “La Jetée,” the short 1962 French film that inspired that film), where time had a darkly ironic way of protecting itself from the meddling of travelers and seemed intent on those travelers creating the traumas their past selves had witnessed as children. (Again, trust me; it makes sense when you’re watching it.) Because it’s a TV series, Syfy’s “12 Monkeys” has had to outdo even that version of time travel. Here, then, the characters are seemingly gifted with a time machine, which gives them the power of the gods — the power to grant and take life by changing the past — but as humans always do when given the power of the gods in myth and legend, they immediately start fumbling about, wreaking havoc. And yet “12 Monkeys” understands why this would happen. These people have lost everything. The children and lovers and families who were taken by the plague are open wounds, ones they would do anything to heal. Wouldn’t you?

6. How Whit Stillman Humanized Privilege.
Tomorrow, Criterion will release A Whit Stillman Trilogy, a collection of his three 90’s films — “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco.” In honor of this reissue, Flavorwire’s Jason Guriel explores how Whit Stillman humanizes privilege in all three films.

Medieval morality plays had vice; Marxists, the bourgeoisie; and my English professors, dead white males. (They also worried about power, brainchild of Foucault’s bald pate.) But these days, we cross our index fingers in the face of privilege. This trendiest of stock villains tends to lurk in the wings of our cultural conversations, only to caper onto stage under a hail of hisses. He sometimes assumes the form of a man-sized Ivy League crest with legs. It’s best not to be seen with him. No one, however, has done more to humanize poor old two-dimensional Privilege than the filmmaker Whit Stillman. His ’90s triptych — “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994), and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), newly reissued in a box set by the Criterion Collection — is populated by people it’s tempting to hate: the sons and daughters of old money; young men dilating on the matter of female beauty; disco partisans. They revere Carl Barks (as opposed to Marx), and say things like, “That’s a great moment in life when you can start sending all your shirts out for laundering.” And yet Stillman has a lot of affection for his preppies and yuppies, despite the flaws they display like Lacoste gators. Unsurprisingly, this seems to trouble his critics, who seem obliged to underscore his flaws. As a writer in Salon once explained, “You can’t always tell at whom he’s poking fun, or why, and it becomes unfortunately easy to typecast him as the WASP answer to Woody Allen and conclude that his movies are insufferably irritating documents of privilege.” Clearly, Stillman’s comedies of manners make culture writers uncomfortable. In poking fun at characters on both the right and left, they register with no clear party or position — which might strike some of us, at a time when there’s support for masonry on the Mexican border, as unthinkable. But what Stillman ultimately sides with is stylish wit. His apolitical movies dare to prize a well-turned one-liner over social justice; they challenge us to embrace aestheticism and check our politics. (“His sense of rigorous style is a way to right the world,” is how “The New Yorker’s” Richard Brody has it.) In our sweltering microclimate of outrage and hot takes, Stillman’s work — equal parts guilty pleasure and hydrating tonic — can feel unnervingly, irresponsibly cool.

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