Yellow is Not the New White


Jennica Martin

There should be a flood warning for any person of color trying to make a movie in Hollywood: Warning: Your Work At Risk of Being White-Washed.

After decades of replacing Asian characters with white ones, using white actors to portray Asian characters or not including Asian characters at all, you’d think that in the era of globalization and diversity that Hollywood would produce films that reflected the diversity in real life. But it hasn’t. And it appears that it doesn’t intend to do so any time soon.

Recently, the first image from the upcoming film Ghost in the Shell was released. Although her full name was not revealed, we know that Scarlett Johannson is portraying the Japanese character, Major Motoko Kusanagi. When the casting for this film was initially announced, many fans of the Ghost in the Shell anime were upset at the idea of a beloved Japanese character being played by a white actress. These fans hoped that the reboot for this revolutionary anime would at least stay true to its source material, but Hollywood is already taking several steps away from what made the original anime classic.

The teaser trailer for the upcoming Marvel film Dr. Strange was also released last week, and it’s filled to the brim with issues. A powerful, mystical Tibetan character, called the Ancient One, is being portrayed by Tilda Swinton. The story of Dr. Strange originally takes place in Tibet, but in the film, it was relocated to Nepal, perhaps to avoid the controversy involving the conflict between Tibet and China.

And just when you think the film couldn’t get more offensive, it manages to exceed your expectations. The actors, including Mads Mikkelsen, portraying the villains were in yellow face. The inclusion of yellow face in this film begs the question: why make white actors look Asian, when you can just hire Asian actors?

Hollywood needs to realize two things: Asian people can play compelling characters and Asian stories don’t need to be westernized to be interesting.

For many Japanese people, Major Kusanagi was an iconic character to whom they could relate. Throughout the anime, she questions her identity and delves into the deep philosophical questions of what makes humans human. According to Hollywood, the only way this character can be appealing and relatable to their audiences is to hire a white actress to play her.

The same could be said for Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One, but perhaps to an even worse degree because of the lack of representation of Tibetans in film. The conflict between Tibet and China is an issue that needs to be addressed, but Hollywood continues to ignore it in fear that they might not connect to their American audience while also losing their Chinese audience. But if Hollywood continues to ignore a major portion of the population, they certainly will upset a large of their audience and lose huge amounts of money.

There are two clear examples of Hollywood suffering heavily from the consequences of screwing up works that were heavily influenced by Asian cultures. There was the Dragon Ball Z film that came out in 2009 that did horribly because of how much it strayed from the original anime. The Asian characters were being played by white actors and the actual Asian actors were set aside as supporting characters.

There was also Avatar: The Last Airbender, which came out a year later. The original cartoon, although not explicitly Asian, had a lot of Asian influences. In the film, the main characters were played by white actors, pitting them against the villains, played by Indian actors. The film also strayed greatly from the original cartoon, which caused it to do terribly in the box office. The disregard for Asian people and their cultures was definitely a contributing factor to the failure of these movies.

Asian culture is not something the white filmmakers of Hollywood can steal out of the hands of talented artists, taint with their own unoriginal ideas and rename as their own work. When will Hollywood learn from their mistakes and realize that their disregard of Asian people and their cultures is a problem they need to solve? All it takes is hiring more Asian people to work behind the screens as well as on-screen. It might be a risk to entrust a film in the hands of an unknown Asian artist, but it’s a risk that Hollywood filmmakers need to be willing to make.