Hollywood Whitewashing: Why They Do It, And Why It Doesn’t Work

Ollie Sirrell /
Apr 11, 2017 / Film & TV

It’s been over a month now since that infamous night at the Oscars when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read out the wrong name for best picture, calling La La Land rather than Moonlight.

The memes ensued, the hilarity followed, but the metaphor lasts: this excruciating moment represented the last struggle for white dominance in Hollywood. It seemed that the baton had been passed; depicting the life of a gay black man, Moonlight was to reign supreme, paving the way for people of colour to illuminate the film industry.

Well, apparently not. As evidenced by filmmakers’ insistence on preserving white hegemony, whitewashing is alive and well in Hollywood. Ghost in the Shell is just the latest example of the practice seemingly borne from the 1950s, whereby a white American takes on the lead role in a film which would otherwise be enriched by actors relevant to the culture or region being depicted.

The film, starring Scarlett Johansson, has since largely flopped at the box office. So far it has taken $73.7m USD, which is well below the film’s budget of $110m. On its opening weekend it took $19m, almost $30m less than Alec Baldwin’s Boss Baby. Why has it failed thus far? Talking to CBC News, Paramount domestic distribution chief Kyle Davies claimed that the poor box office results for Ghost in the Shell may have been due to the decision to whitewash the protagonist.

“We had hopes for better results domestically. I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews.”

“You’ve got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it’s based on a Japanese anime movie, so you’re always trying to thread that needle between honouring the source material and make a movie for a mass audience. That’s challenging, but clearly, the reviews didn’t help.”

 But this is not just an issue for the ‘fanboys’. In fact, Davies’s comment further highlights Paramount’s ignorance. In addition to displeasing the original target audience, Paramount have the audacity to blame the poor financial income on the ‘reviews’, suggesting it was the media’s fault for their decision to cast a white American in the lead role of an adaptation of a Japanese anime. Paramount clearly still do not understand the issue at hand.

Prior to Ghost in the Shell’s release, Matt Damon was cast in the lead role for The Great Wall, another example of whitewashing in a film about Asian culture. Once again, the film did not perform spectacularly at the box office due to concerns about the needlessness to have a white American as the face of the posters promoting a film about Chinese heritage.

According to The Independent, as of 5 March The Great Wall earned just $34.8m in North America. While sales globally saw it take more than $320m around the world, it is expected that the film lost money overall. The budget of the film was $150m, but the marketing budget sum remains undisclosed and is likely to be a vast amount. Perhaps it is so big because the film’s promoters had to persuade audiences to watch Matt Damon struggle in a foreign environment – perhaps they wouldn’t have had to spend so much on marketing if they had used an Asian actor as the lead in the first place.

Ironically, films starring people of colour are doing well – critically and commercially parallel to Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall’s respectively timid performances. Moonlight received 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, Jordan Peele’s Get Out scored 99% and the story of the black women behind NASA’s operations, Hidden Figures, was awarded 93%. In contrast, Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall scored 46% and 35% respectively. In another slap in the face to Matt Damon, in its 11th week Hidden Figures banked over $163.1 million, out-grossing Jason Bourne which brought in $162.4 million, as well as La La Land and Star Trek Beyond. Get Out also took $11m more than Ghost in the Shell did in their respective opening weekends and as of March 15th had taken over $113m in total.

It’s almost as if people enjoy watching films where the leads are diverse and aren’t the same white people we have been watching for the last twenty years.

When the President of the United States was endorsed by the former Ku Klux Klan leader and hate crimes in Great Britain are increasing post Brexit, the arts are so important for spreading messages of tolerance and diversity. Hollywood has always had a responsibility to challenge the powerful via the medium of film and now its role is more important than ever before. Hollywood must stop pointlessly whitewashing films when the current political and social climate is one of fear and angst for people of colour. Given the phenomenal box office and critical performances of Get Out, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, there is literally no good reason to continue the archaic trend of whitewashing.

Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall were just two contemporary examples of this obsolete practice and hopefully two of the last examples. Next year a film about refugee Yusra Mardini is scheduled for release. Her story is one of defiance, courage and persistence as she fled Syria, pulling a boat of 20 with two others across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece. Yusra settled in Germany and her swimming talent was put to practice as she trained in Berlin. Within months she was selected to represent the first refugee team at the Olympics in Rio last year. Surely even Hollywood cannot whitewash a story as pure as this.

Get Volume #17 here.

Words by Ollie Sirrell

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