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Hollywood’s Asian Whitewashing: Why It Happens So Often, And Why It Must Be Stopped

Hollywood's Asian Whitewashing: Why It Happens So Often, And Why It Must Be Stopped

Editor’s note: Hollywood whitewashing is not a new problem, but it’s seen a spike with recent reports that Tilda Swinton would play an Asian character in Marvel’s upcoming “Doctor Strange” (the studio now claims she’s supposed to be Celtic); and with the first photos of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead character in the live-action adaptation of the manga series “The Ghost in the Shell.”

For more perspective on the cultural and industrial factors fueling this issue, we set up an email exchange between three Asian-American members of the entertainment community: Mynette Louie, president of Gamechanger Films (“The Invitation,” “Lovesong,” “Land Ho!”),  Andrew Ahn, who made his directorial debut with “Spa Night” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; and Jeff Yang, a featured CNN contributor and author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action,” editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered,” and father of Hudson Yang, from ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

MYNETTE LOUIE: The mainstream finally seems to be noticing a problem that many of us Asian Americans have already been rolling our eyes at for decades: whitewashing in movies. That is: The practice of casting white actors in roles originally conceived as Asian (or another non-white race). Hollywood continues to defend whitewashing with the argument that no Asian actors are “bankable” and yet, no-name white actors get cast in star-making roles all the time (see: Chris Pine, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Gal Gadot, etc.). 

If studios, financiers, and producers aren’t willing to commit to making a star out of an Asian actor in the same way they’ve done with the aforementioned white actors, what hope is there to ever have an Asian actor who is “bankable”? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it really feels like the system is rigged against Asian actors. So much so, that many Asian American actors who were born and raised in the U.S. go to Asia to try to make a name for themselves there: Daniel Wu, Daniel Henney, Leehom Wang, to name a few. Some of them started out not even speaking their ancestral language, and have had to learn it to play leading roles in China, Hong Kong, Korea, etc. Thankfully, some of these actors are coming back home after becoming stars overseas. But isn’t it sad that they couldn’t do that in their home country?

There is also a long tradition of American indie films breaking out unknown actors, who then go on to become stars in studio films. Some examples are Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Hillary Swank, Jennifer Lawrence, and Brie Larson. As you may have noticed, all these examples are white. I mean, look at the great performances in Justin Lin’s breakout feature, “Better Luck Tomorrow.” Whatever happened to everyone in that movie aside from John Cho (who broke out not in this film, but studio comedies “American Pie” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), plus Justin casting Sung Kang and Roger Fan in a few of his studio features? Jason Tobin rocked BLT, but Hollywood neither noticed nor cared. 

That was 2002. This year, Joe Seo, who was the lead in Andrew’s film “Spa Night,” won a Breakthrough Performance Award at Sundance. Will Joe’s talent be ignored by Hollywood, 14 years after BLT? And Andrew, how were you able to get your film financed in the first place with a cast that’s all Asian? The all-Asian-cast Sundance 2009 film I produced, “Children of Invention” by Tze Chun, cost a buck fifty and was financed by friends and philanthropists (and by the way, actors Cindy Cheung, Michael Chen, and Crystal Chiu were great in it!). I’ve had another project with an Asian lead on my development slate for longer than I care to divulge, so I know firsthand how hard it is to get films with Asian leads financed. And yes, I’ve had quite a few of those “Can you make him white?” conversations. It often seems like the indie film world is even more resistant to people of color than the studio world is.

But there does seem to be a glimmer of hope in TV, which I feel is now doing a much better job of breaking non-white actors than indie film is — Steven Yeun, Priyanka Chopra, Constance Wu, Randall Park, and (Jeff’s son) Hudson Yang, for example. But will studios, financiers, and producers help them make the jump to movies?

ANDREW AHN: Mynette, I’m so glad you bring up independent film, because I feel that much of the coverage on this issue has neglected to mention it, even as it suffers from the same systemic problem of whitewashing and a lack of representation. However, we have more control over the situation — we don’t have to be big studio executives to make a difference.  

As I was trying to make “Spa Night” happen, I realized very early on that even independent film financing is very cast dependent; potential financiers want to see big actors in their movies as much as studio heads do. I remember meeting with a potential executive producer early on in the process and he wanted me to write a role for a white actor in “Spa Night,” someone who could bring name value. If it made sense for the story, I would have tried it, but it didn’t. “Spa Night” is the story of a Korean-American immigrant family in Los Angeles and how each member of the family struggles to balance personal desire with a sense of family responsibility. 

I was fortunate enough to have gone through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which gave the project a stamp of approval that helped in the financing process. The financing was done in many small pieces, which was stressful and exhausting. We ultimately cobbled the funding together through crowdfunding on Kickstarter, a number of passionate first-time film investors, and grants from organizations like Sundance, Film Independent, Panavision, Cinereach, and EFILM. It didn’t matter to these people that we didn’t have a big star. What mattered was that we were making a film that tackled the LGBTQ experience in an Asian-American context. I think our Kickstarter backers and our investors are the same people who have been rolling their eyes at this issue of whitewashing for a while, and they decided to do something about it by supporting “Spa Night.”

Casting “Spa Night” was a challenge as well. But long story short, I can testify that the talent exists. Our leads — Joe Seo, Haerry Kim, and Younho Cho — are passionate, committed, and insanely talented actors and I’m so glad I could give them the opportunity to show this to the world through “Spa Night.” If we want to see more Asian-American actors in big Hollywood movies, we need to make and support independent Asian-American films that feature undiscovered talent. Go to an Asian-American film festival. Become members of organizations like Visual Communications, CAAM, Pacific Arts Movement, and Cinevision. Watch Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous” on Netflix. Come to theaters to see “Spa Night” in the fall!

We should definitely talk about television. I agree with you, Mynette, that it’s done a much better job of showcasing a plurality of talent. From “Fresh Off the Boat” to “The Walking Dead,” television has made the leap faster and higher than film. I wonder if that’s because television is serialized; it stays with you. The faces show up every week. With film, you watch it once and leave it at that. It’s hard to build momentum — a momentum we so badly need.

JEFF YANG: When the most recent episodes of Hollywood bleaching of roles of color emerged, in “The Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” — and it’s important to remember that these are just the latest episode in a long historical line of character whitewashing and yellowface portrayals in Hollywood — what appalled me wasn’t simply the fact that in 2016, the studios still think this is okay, but that major players in the independent film world defend such practices. 

Last month, Max Landis, the screenwriter behind “Chronicle” and “American Ultra,” sprinted to YouTube to state that the reason Scarlett Johansson was cast in GITS, a big-budget live-action adaptation of a groundbreaking Japanese animated feature, was that there are “no A-list female Asian celebrities.” In February, the Coen brothers simultaneously stated that diversity is important — and that they had no intention of changing the way they cast their films, which is to say, almost uniformly with white actors. 

“You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?” said Joel Coen, calling the question he’d been asked on whether he’d commit to diverse casting “idiotic.” His brother Ethan concurred: “It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity — or it might not.”

The problem is that, for the Coens, and for most big-budget studio producers and all too many indie filmmakers, “it might not” means “it rarely, if ever does.” 

The question isn’t how the story in your head looks; it’s how the story on screen looks. Hey, white male indie director: Might the white male characters in your head possibly be portrayable by black, Hispanic, Asian or female actors without you losing your beloved auteurist narrative control? Does the fact that you can only imagine your stories with white protagonists say more about the lack of “A-list actors” of color, or about your personal predilections, cultural myopia, and lack of storytelling range?

That’s a bigger issue to me, in a lot of ways, than whitewashing. I call it “prewashing”: When directors can’t even imagine Asian characters or, God forbid, protagonists. Yes, it sucks that the handful of substantial Asian roles are often yanked out of reach to Asian actors. But it sucks even more that those roles are so far and few between, because screenwriters aren’t writing them and filmmakers aren’t envisioning them. Remember that the issue for Asian Americans in the #OscarsSoWhite controversy wasn’t that we weren’t being nominated — it was that there literally were no Oscar-worthy Asian-American performances, because no one had written, directed, produced or cast roles to legitimately give Asian performers the chance to compete at that star-making level. 

Here’s the inconvenient truth: If eight white men — Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen — were to commit to diverse casting, the Oscar conversation would be totally different. Hell, Hollywood would be totally different. Each of these guys can literally choose to cast anyone they want, with little opposition from money guys or studios. Anderson cast unknown Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The Coens cast (also Guatemalan-American) Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Those movies weren’t destroyed by the presence of then-obscure nonwhite performers. Can you imagine if these Eight Greats were to make films with Asian protagonists? 

We’ve come to a point in our history as a nation where, even in mainstream politics, it’s acknowledged that there’s a meaningful need for candidates and nominees to reflect the massive shifts in American demographics. As you guys have both noted, TV has finally begun to embrace this reality as well, and profited from it — UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and other institutions have shown with multiple studies that diverse television and movies do better and earn more than ones cast with all or mostly white casts. 

For Asian Americans, the revolution is being televised, with “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “Master of None.” But we have yet to see that spread to the big screen. And frankly, I wonder what it’ll take for the film industry to realize that they are being left behind — creatively and politically now, but commercially in the future, as cinema continues to globalize and audiences in the U.S. and beyond look less and less like the “typical” big indie movie cast.

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Comments

Olen

"If studios, financiers, and producers aren’t willing to commit to making a star out of an Asian actor in the same way they’ve done with the aforementioned white actors, what hope is there to ever have an Asian actor who is "bankable"? – this is crux of the issue. All Hollywood has to do is market the f out of an Asian (Indian, disabled, queer, et al.) actor like they do all the dumb movies that their lazy lemmings rush to see and poof! you have another manufactured celebrity who will be able to carry a film because he is manufactured to carry a film. It’s so obvious. Like they did with Chunky Girl #1, Melissa McCarthy.

    StraitDope

    Agreed, although I try not to compare being Asian to being disabled or fat.

Honesty

Do Asian countries distribute American indie films starring Black Actors not named Denzel or Jamie? Don’t look to indie filmmakers to solve this issue. Unless you’ve got a rich uncle who will put up equity, 99% of Indie filmmakers are at the mercy of financiers who piece together their budgets and protect their investment through international sales to countries who don’t have an interest in black or asian actors. The only chance to change the racial imbalance is at the studio level where they can create a star with serious P&A. Problem with that is these big P&A released movies are selling the character and not the actor, so there’s a small chance that will work for creating a trickle down effect for asian, black, ethnic actors in indie films. Your issue should be taken up with Germany, Spain, France, Italy, England, Sweden, Japan, China, etc… Get them to buy and distribute movies starring races different than their own and you’ll start to solve the problem. Good luck.

    StraitDope

    Black A listers are internationally bankable precisely because they’re Hollywood A listers and hip hop was never a thang until it was mainstream in America and now it’s world wide and taking the Far East by storm. Rightly or wrongly the whole world looks to America to tell them what’s cool and normal. So those of you who say the rest of the world must change first got it backwards. America peer pressures the world, not the other way around.

    StraitDope

    Yes, you’re talking about Indie, which often times also means “art house” and not profit driven. You’d be surprised how open minded the “artsy fartsy” types are regardless of where they call home. El Mariachi was made on no budget starring no name Mexicans and it gave Robert Rodriguez a Hollywood career.

DJ

"…because no one had written, directed, produced or cast roles to legitimately give Asian performers the chance to compete at that star-making level."
Let’s trace this to the root level — indie development labs, workshops, film schools. Screenplays are being written on those levels but they don’t advance because they receive equal amounts dismissal, condescension and hate from OTHER Asian-Americans… that lingering battle for "authentic identity" supremacy. "No one wants to see another immigrant identity story again." Ever heard that one?

    StraitDope

    And who says the Asian character has to have an immigrant story? What if he’s just a psychopathic serial killer whose day job is a Silicon Valley billionaire philanthropist? Are there no Asian screen writers who can conceive such a thing?

Clarence

""You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?"

I love the Cohen Brothers work, but I have to call BS on that one. Did they not produce a film (A Serious Man) specifically written about a Jewish man?

Jimmy

One solution to whitewashing casting problem is the actors going overseas to find work. Movie industries of China, India, and Korea are massive and there are a number of US citizens who do well over there. For example, Lui Yifei is a US citizen, but she doesn’t mind that hardly anyone knows her in the US, because she’s currently no. 2 in actress power ranking in China. So for at least Indian, Chinese, and Korean American actors, seeking stardom in Asia is not out of question.

    StraitDope

    And maybe this is a potential source for funding, because Hollywood films are actually huge in Asia, and Crouching Tiger was a joint affair that dominated multiple categories at the Oscars. The Departed did the same some years later although it was introduced as “adopted from a JAPANESE made film.”

Chizz

I’d like to sit these folks down for a screening of Year of the Dragon

Jeff Levine

All this article really needed was the headline and Joel Cohen correctly identifying the idea of committing to diversity in casting idiotic. Everything else is just noise.

    StraitDope

    Film is make believe but real life has far more diversity than film. I’m talking about North America.

      Jeff Levine

      But film is make believe oh never mind you just said that. What?

tricradocr

4″once I saw the draft of 3800 bucks,I admit that my sister was like really generating cash in his free time with his COM. My aunt has done this for only 6 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new
BMW..Ho2 ————>>> WorkprosPects.TK

Blah

You basically accuse directors of only being able to envision characters that look like they do. But then you imply that Asians and other audience members can’t relate unless someone that looks like them is cast and on screen. So who’s really lacking imagination and empathy?

    StraitDope

    The contributors aren’t saying that at all. They’re saying aspiring Asian actors don’t seem to get the same kind of chance, which perpetuates the lack of home (American) made Asian stars.

brotherseoul

Everytime I hear someone say it’s because they need a "bankable" actor/actress, they are basically saying that it’s okay to be racist, sexist, and terribly discriminatory because it’s gonna make alot of money…..And the truth is, that is basically the way the U.S. has always made it’s fortune. It’s why African slave trade existed. And like slavery, to blackface, to yellowface, whitewashing has to stop. It’s an out of date practice and just plain messed up!

    Jeff Levine

    “Bankable” means that financiers have a comfort level with an actor because the movies that actor has been in have made money. That’s not racism. Your post is incredibly mean spirited. You say the U.S. has always made its fortune off of racism, but the U.S. doesn’t make money, it’s a country. And tying people casting who they want to cast in their movies to slavery is mystifying. You seem really angry about something. Did something horrible happen to you? Were you the victim of a hate crime by a producer?

Roshdi

Hollywood has been white washing the masses since its inception, so what’s new?

deej

@Blah – It’s the reality of dominant vs. minority cultures. It’s time for the "dominant" one to get a taste of their own, empathetic medicine.

Chizz

DEEJ has the guts to say it: diversity is just revenge on dominant culture

Whitman Lam

""You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?" ~Cohen Brothers …
Wait, so nobody sat down to write a screenplay for "Straight Outta Compton" ? They started with a story about a group of White rap artists in South Los Angeles in the 80’s, then decided to cast some Black actors ??? Right ….

    StraitDope

    And Ghost In the Shell is set in a futuristic Japan, but not far off in the future enough to have Nordic immigration.

    Jeff Levine

    You’re missing the point. It’s not likely that anyone said, “I’m going to write a story about black people” and then sat around figuring which black people to write about. That example is a movie based on the true story of a moment in culture and the rappers who dominated it, who WERE black, not BECAUSE they were black.

    The self-righteous calls for diversity quickly devolve into hateful, ugly accusations of racism, and that’s unforgivable. Casting a white person to play a Native American isn’t racism, it’s stupid, And even that’s not stupid if it’s a white person whose features and hair, etc. might be only slightly Native American but the perfect look for that particular story. That’s a subjective creative decision that’s up to the filmmakers. How can anyone think they have the right to tell anyone else what to write about or who to cast in their movies? Everyone needs to take a step back.

John

One step at a time folks. It’s one thing to expect a predominantly white country to CREATE roles for minorities, and to that effect, the Cohen brothers have a point. However, they’re not being sincere when they cast Whites for Asian characters.

    StraitDope

    You don’t CREATE roles for minorities, you simply don’t avoid filling some roles with minority talents to make the cinematic experience more believable and true to real life. You must be from a very “mono-cultural” place to not have realized that.

StraitDope

Of course, with film you can’t just shrug off a failed pilot or kill a character half way through season, and each time you roll the dice it could be tens of millions of dollars so the only route might be indie once again as not too many western born Asians have come into their own beyond supporting roles but some of them, just might be big enough to pique the interest of indie film makers and financiers. So they go from support roles in blockbuster hits to LEAD roles in indie with potential to become cult classics, and back to Hollywood again but now as a proven formula. It all sounds so good but from the sound of this article they’re not getting the chance at the indie level unless it’s a story about an immigrant community, with an all ethnic cast and therefore, might be construed as cliche. Wow. Because in real life, it’s actually not that rare to see races living and working together in mixed neighborhoods and circles, so what the problem is, why the creative types can’t seem to imagine it, your guess is as good as mine, but it comes back to being proven and marketable again, and both Hollywood and Indie are waiting for the other to take the lead and it’s retarded how risk averse film has become. I mean there’s no lack of boldness in the up and comers but when it comes to casting, suddenly they become a bunch of girly men.

StraightPope

What I’m getting is that there are also fewer East and South Asians relatively speaking in show biz due to family pressure, so they go into safer career paths. Maybe that’s changing but if the creative fields, from writing to directing to acting are still dominated by the majority and if this majority is gun shy about leaving their comfort zone then that translates into fewer talents after the same opportunities when skepticism is already high.

For many independent film makers their first commercially viable project could be their last if it bombs. And this article also raises the issue that many relative unknowns have hit the ball out of the park and don’t get discovered by Hollywood, so I think the trajectory will have to be from TV to the big screen if they want to prove that they can draw a huge following.

Films are made each year with popular names that turn out to be total duds at the box office (Southland Tales comes to mind, which was just all around horrible), and stars are made all the time by their indie break out hits so as long as we can solve the problem of financing first, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more creative freedom being exercised. I’m sure discrimination and us vs them accounts for some of the race bias in casting as well from indie (perhaps indie especially) to major studios but as the developing markets grow in profitability that’s bound to change due to sheer necessity.

The overseas markets for Hollywood will only grow to be bigger slices of the pie as their native film industries may not catch up in special effects or post production for some time to come. So I think the time is ripe now for stars like Daniel Wu to begin talks with his fellow countrymen. East Asian faces aren’t just popular in China but all over the emerging economies of South East Asia as well.

We Aren't All White

Great article! I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t want to invest in more diversity, instead of churning out films with the same white actors over and over again. Diversity is magic! If you or your readers want to head over to wearentallwhite.wordpress.com, we explore how lack of diversity and whitewashing negatively impacts Hollywood and its audience. Keep up the good work Indiewire (and Corey Gilmore!)

Jeff Levine

“The financing was done in many small pieces, which was stressful and exhausting.”

You bet it was. Now try and imagine putting together millions and then having a social activist tell you who the director has to be to make the movie you have to make cast with the people you have to cast from the script you have to write.

And seriously, am I the only person around here who gets the irony of using a racist descriptor like “whitewashing” to call out racism?

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