It’s only been a couple of days, but I’m certain many of you have been to the multiplex to see Scarlett Johansson kick behinds in tight bodysuits as Black Widow in “Captain America: Civil War.” Johansson will most likely put her foot in more derrieres in another movie she’s starring in soon, the live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime “Ghost in the Shell.” However, a lot of people have been upset that Johansson, a white woman, will play a Japanese character.
This is yet another recent casting choice where a white woman assumes the role of an Asian character that people just aren’t feeling. People were also up in arms at the sight of Tilda Swinton, that androgynous, alabaster queen, rocking a bald head and white robes as Tibetan monk The Chosen One in the trailer for the upcoming big-screen version of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.” Although the character is usually depicted as an elderly Asian man, Marvel sent out a statement saying the Chosen One this time around will be Celtic. “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character,” the statement stated, “but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”
As much as people try to explain these casting choices, one sad truth remains: Hollywood whitewashing still exists in 2016. The usually embarrassing spectacle of white actors playing Asian characters has been around forever. I mean, do we even have to discuss the succession of white dudes who played Chinese detective Charlie Chan through the years?
Even back then, American audiences had problems with a movie starring white people in Asian roles. The most famous example is “The Conqueror,” the 1956 historical epic where all-American icon John Wayne played – wait for it! – Genghis Khan. (Yeah, you heard me!) Not only was the movie’s production literally toxic (exterior scenes were shot downwind of a nuclear weapons testing site), but it also was such an embarrassment that producer Howard Hughes would later spend millions snatching up every print so it could never be viewed by future audiences.
Sometimes I wonder if filmmakers are doing favors by not having Asians appear in these films, since many of them don’t do well critically or financially. (Remember when Indian-American M. Night Shyamalan cast white kids in the live-action version of the reviled “The Last Airbender”?) Last year, that adorable Emma Stone was hit with controversy when she played a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian character in the Cameron Crowe movie “Aloha.” It was such a prime example of miscasting, Crowe groveled for forgiveness mere weeks after its release. “I have heard your words and your disappointment,” Crowe wrote on his blog, “and I offer you a heartfelt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.”
When it comes to seeing proper portrayals of Asian characters played by Asian people in popular culture, as usual, television comes to the rescue. Whether it’s broadcast, cable or streaming, TV continues to serve up shows featuring main and/or supporting characters of Asian descent. Most of these shows appear to be on ABC. It has the comedies “Dr. Ken” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” two family sitcoms that boast a predominantly Asian cast, and the drama “Quantico,” starring Indian actress (and recent Time cover girl) Priyanka Chopra. More importantly, these shows often give Asian actors the opportunity to explore and delve into Asian culture and their backgrounds, giving audiences – whoever they may be – a window into a world they may not have been aware of.
Having a white movie star go Asian may seem like the more profitable thing to do in the eyes of the movie industry. But if you want to see Asian people done right, in more ways than one, you have to go to the small screen.