• Scarlett Johannson played the lead character in Japanese manga adaptation 'Ghost In The Shell'. (PARAMOUNT PICTURES)Source: PARAMOUNT PICTURES
It's nice to hear major movie stars pay lip service to diversity, but it's time for them to do more than talk, writes Ruby Hamad.
Ruby Hamad

12 Jul 2016 - 1:05 PM  UPDATED 12 Jul 2016 - 2:50 PM

Last month, mega-star Scarlett Johansson threw her support behind the Academy Awards’ decision to expand their membership to include more members from racially diverse backgrounds.

“It’s awesome to have a diverse group of people in an organisation like that. You need to have different points of view and different perspectives,” she said, before adding that audiences also had a role to play in promoting diversity in Hollywood.

“Of course, it’s also the studios who ultimately will make the movies, but I think when the audiences speak loudly and tell the studios what they want to watch, there’s an ear there. The audiences will drive the direction of what is green-lit and put on the fast track. I truly believe that to be true, especially now in the time of social media. The voices cannot be ignored. So I tell people to…keep asking for diversity in Hollywood.”

Honourable sentiments but a tad ironic given who said them.

One of Hollywood’s biggest problems with diversity is its tendency to “whitewash” film roles by casting white actors in implicitly or explicitly non-white roles, a phenomenon that has been greatly lampooned and critiqued.

Most recently, Asian-American Michelle Villemaire, has created a visual project Correcting Yellowface, in which she recreates still images from famous Hollywood movies that have whitewashed Asian characters, substituting herself for the film’s white stars, in order to give audiences a more truthful representation of the character.

One of the films she targets is Ghost In The Shell, a live-action adaption of the Japanese manga franchise of the same name. The character of Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese, however, in the film she is played by none other than Scarlett Johansson. And, to clear up any confusion as to whether the character’s nationality has been altered for the film, the role of the Major’s mother will be played by Japanese actress and Memoirs of a Geisha star Kaori Momoi. 

Now, in some respects, Johansson is right; studios do have the ultimate power but audiences can spearhead change by demanding diversity. Indeed, many have been doing just that. For two years running the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite dominated headlines around Academy Awards time, as social media users decried the lack of non-white nominees, while websites like Racebending, created by film fans have been drawing attention to the phenomenon of yellowface in particular. At the same time writers, including myself, have criticised the casting in blockbuster films such as Gods of Egypt, The Impossible, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

In doing so, we have focussed primarily on the decisions by directors, producers, and studio executives. We have also pleaded with audiences themselves to consider boycotts.

All to seemingly no avail.

And now, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumoured to be the filmmakers’ favourite to play iconic Muslim poet Rumi - although Leo himself is said not to be interested- a tactical change may be in order.

I wouldn’t want to deny any struggling actor a much needed role, but we are not talking about emerging ingénues here.

It’s time for actors like Scarlett Johansson to literally put their money where their mouth is and turn down these lucrative roles when they are offered.

Now I wouldn’t want to deny any struggling actor a much needed role, but we are not talking about emerging ingénues here. Some of the most egregious cases of whitewashing in recent years have involved some of the world’s biggest stars.

These include Tilda Swinton playing an Asian (male) character in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange, Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scottish heartthrob Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt, and Emma Stone’s infamous turn as part Chinese-Hawaiian character in the much-lampooned Aloha.

These are major stars at the peak of their fame who have their choice of script. And when they choose to take on one of the rare roles that features a non-white lead character, the implications are devastating for two main reasons.

Imagine, for example, that DiCaprio (or any other famous white actor) did indeed take on the role of Rumi. First, they would be denying an actor of Middle Eastern heritage a rare chance at a leading role, and be something other than a terrorist or religious fanatic. Second, because representation matters.

Muslims are rarely represented positively in the media. And while the filmmakers behind the Rumi biopic say their intention is to “challenge Muslim stereotypes,” this will be completely undermined by casting a white actor, which will only serve to sanitise his Muslimness and Middle Easterness, making him more palatable to white audiences.

Sure the script will say “Muslim,” but the far more influential camera lens will show a white man. This reinforces old stereotypes that all heroes are white, and that good Muslims are not only few and far between, but they are not really Muslim at all. 

Rumi is a hugely popular figure in the West. This fact alone indicates that audiences are indeed ready for non-white “heroes.” Indeed, what Johansson seemingly failed to grasp is that audiences have already been pushing for greater diversity. The problem is that the desires of the audience have been thwarted by both the studios and the stars that have been complicit in whitewashing.

So while it is nice to hear a major white movie star pay lip service to diversity, it’s time for them do more than talk. They need to show some humility and solidarity and stop taking on whitewashed roles that keep racial minorities relegated firmly to the fringes. 

Less talk, more action
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From Emma Stone playing a Chinese-Hawaiian woman to Mena Suvari playing an African-American woman, cornrows and all.