Why People Are Calling Out “The Martian” for Whitewashing

I don’t know why I’ve been putting off this post about The Martian for so long. I guess it might be because, even though I run a site about race and culture in entertainment, I get fatigued from having to write the same story over and over when it seems like Hollywood will never learn. Also, I didn’t feel like writing about Matt Damon again, even on the most ironic level (because the irony is that even though he’s not involved directly in the backlash The Martian faces, he has been embroiled in racial entertainment politics already, in which, as he said to The Hollywood Reporter after watching the now infamous episode featuring the heated exchange between him and Effie Brown, he made himself “look like an an asshole”). But I have to write about this, and you’ll see why. 

The Martian is facing heat for whitewashing two of its characters. Thankfully, Damon’s character is not a part of this, or it would have been a very ironic turn of events seeing the hole he’d already dug for himself when it comes to talking about race in entertainment. The two character that have been whitewashed are Mackenzie Davis’ character Mindy Park, originally a Korean-American, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character, the NASA Director of Mars Operations, originally from India.

It’s pointedly racist for the two of the main characters to be changed out for actors of distinctly different backgrounds because it doesn’t make any sense for the changes to have occurred. It especially doesn’t make any sense when, according to Deadline, there were many other Asian actors in the film.

Asian actors, however, weren’t completely shut out of the film: Benedict Wong plays the role of Bruce Ng, the Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Other Asian actors playing small roles in the film include Chen Shu, Yang Haiwen, Eddy Ko, Yang Liu, Xue Xuxing and Narantsogt Tsogtsaikhan.

Both Aki Aleong, President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), and MANAA’s founding President Guy Aoki are outraged by the whitewashed casting, saying to Deadline that this kind of casting has to come to an end. “This insulting practice of white-washing has got to stop,” said Aleong. “Alarmingly, it has been increasing in frequency.” Aoki said, “So few projects are written specifically with Asian-American characters in them, and he’s [Ridley Scott] now changed them to a white woman and black man. This was a great opportunity to give meaty roles to talented Asian American actors—and boost their careers. …This feel-good movie, which has attracted Oscar buzz, shouldn’t get any awards for casting.”

Aleong also stated that today’s audiences “expect multi-racial casts in entertainment, as they reflect the multi-cultural environment in which they’ve grown up,” citing Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Quantico as major examples, all of which have Asian stars.

It’s worth noting that this film is from the machine of Ridley Scott, a man formerly known for his Alien trilogy, but is also known for the whitewashing debacle that is Exodus: Gods and Kings. That film, unlike The Martian, flopped due in part to its horribly-written story and in part to its whitewashed treatment of characters, coupled with having dark-skinned actors cast as guards and lower-class folk.

Perhaps Scott thought he was somehow getting the casting right for The Martian by having black actors in the main cast (Donald Glover was also a highly-billed name in this film). But there’s “casting diversely” and then there’s “casting diversely without responsibility.” There’s a way to have a diverse cast and be respectful to the characters as they exist on the page and to the actors who are vying for (and hoping for) roles. If there were two main characters who were Asian, cast them as such. It makes literally no sense to erase the presence of Asian characters with sizable parts. It seems like the thought process with some Hollywood insiders is that Asian audiences somehow don’t want to see themselves on camera except in tertiary roles, when that’s not the case. It’s not the case for non-Asian audiences either, who are part of the audience who watch Dr. Ken, Quantico and Fresh Off the Boat.

If anyone out there thinks that the best actors were chosen when it came to playing the NASA head of the mars expedition and Mindy Park, then how do you explain them casting tons of Asian actors for tons of small roles? If they could find Asian actors for those roles, they could have found Asian actors for the two main roles as well.

What’s your opinion on this? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Screencap of Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Martian.