The past few years have seen the discussion around diversity in media in film expanding. The call for more diversity in casting seems to be getting louder - with good reason.
In recent interviews, the case of whitewashing in the film Annihilation was brought up with two of the movie's stars, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Both insisted they were unaware of the fact that their characters in the source material were of Asian and Native American heritage and agreed casting whitewashing is problematic.
Portman said that: “We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women and particularly women of color, Native Americans — I mean, we just don’t have enough representation.”
Still, acknowledgment doesn’t negate the fact that the roles should have gone to women of colour.
Director Alex Garland’s unapologetic explanation that only the first book was used in the adaptation demonstrates an unwillingness to engage with the source material thoughtfully and leaves much to be desired.
Excusing away whitewashing has become all too familiar and Annihilation is just the latest example.
Here are five other times the entertainment industry failed to do people of colour justice:
Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story
Catherine Zeta Jones is no stranger to taking on Latina roles despite not actually being Latina. Cast in the recently-announced Lifetime biopic, the Welsh actress portrays infamous Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco. Responding to criticism, Zeta Jones commented that there aren’t roles in which she can use her Welsh accent as an attempt to justify taking roles that should go to women of colour. She followed up by going on to comment that: “this happens to be the third Hispanic I’ve played.” Nevermind that Latina and Hispanic are not interchangeable terms or the fact that just because she’s played a brown woman in the past, it doesn’t mean she should again.
Straying from the source material in an adaptation is not uncommon and it is the defense Netflix’s Death Note director Adam Wingard employed to justify whitewashing of the Japanese franchise. “When moving the setting of Death Note to America we, of course, made the movie about America,” were the exact words used. Assuming whiteness in an Americanised adaptation supposes that the default in being American is to be white. As many critics pointed out, it’s not actually representative of America or indeed, the west. In a discussion on IndieWire, Hanh Nguyen observed that “the concept of a death god is very common in Japanese lore, and therefore comes with a set of expectations or rules. Setting the story in Seattle and not having anyone Asian American play the role of Light Yagami, now Light Turner, removed that context.”
CW’s Supergirl has long faced issues rooted in racism and white washing. Presenting as a feminist show with a strong female lead, creators appeared to be listening to critics when they introduced Maggie Sawyer, a queer latinx version of the comic book character. The show made explicit efforts to connect to an underrepresented demographic in introducing Maggie, who was open in her struggles of being a Latina and gay. It was a huge opportunity to champion diverse portrayals of the Latinx community. Except Floriana Lima, who plays Maggie, is not Latina. Specifically, she is Italian, English, Irish, and German. Supergirl, it appears, continually lets down its fans, contributing here to the long list of latinx roles that have gone to white actors.
In the 90s, Michael Jackson told Oprah Winfrey that the idea of a white actor playing him was “horrifying”. Fast forward to late 2015 when it was announced that white British actor, Joseph Fiennes, would be playing the late singer in an episode of the series called Urban Myths. Director Ben Palmer said that Jackson’s physical appearance was difficult to cast: “We were really looking for the performance that could unlock the spirit, and we really think Joe Fiennes has done that. He’s given a really sweet, nuanced, characterful performance.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Discussing her 2016 film, Tina Fey said that she bowed to pressures from casting directors when selecting actors to play two Afghan characters. Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott, are of Spanish-Italian and Eastern European-Portuguese ethnicity respectively. In an interview with the New York Times, Fey discussed the casting decision, stating that “the tricky thing is Afghans (can be) Caucasians.” Interesting considering in the film both actors are dressed up in a poor attempt to make them appear otherwise.