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“Doctor Strange” puts Mordo on the villain’s path for no reason

Marvel Studios

With Thanksgiving comes Thanksgiving trips to the movie theater, and on one such trip, I was treated to a showing of Doctor Strange. As you well know if you’re a constant reader of this site, Doctor Strange isn’t well liked around these parts, and for good reason—whitewashing and using a pan-Asian cultural motif as a backdrop for non-Asian characters.

Doctor Strange is a confounding movie, partly because if it weren’t for the outstanding cultural criticisms and controversy, it actually has the bones of a decent film.  We’re only one movie-deep into Marvel’s Phase Three (Captain America: Civil War was the first one), but Doctor Strange showed the confident and daring direction Marvel plans on taking its films in the future. Now that we’ve introduced Marvel’s version of a Time Lord, we’re going to see much more boldness and boundary-pushing from the franchise. Overall, it’s great to see Marvel so confident with their chosen direction.

Also, Doctor Strange‘s score is by Michael Giacchino, who has quickly become a favorite for me. Due to The Lion King, I’ve always been a fan of Hans Zimmer’s brass-heavy scores, and because John Williams is so ingrained in movie culture—he even did the soundtrack for Home Alone, for goodness’ sake!—I respect his lengthy body of work, despite his composing style sometimes leaving too much of a light, airy atmosphere for my liking. However Giacchino is like the wonderful compromise between Zimmer’s boldness and punch and Williams’ cerebral qualities. In short, Giacchino creates scores that are fun, uplifting (see: Star Trek Beyond‘s “Night on the Yorktown”), tongue-in-cheek, yet dark, mysterious, and sometimes even sexy (perfect example of sexy Giacchino—The Incredibles‘ “Off to Work” and “Lava in the Afternoon”).

However, that is where my compliments for the movie stop. I have quite a lot of gripes with the film, and it’s time I let them out, in my favorite form—a bulleted list.

• The whitewashing is more egregious in person: After having analyzed the film for several weeks, I already knew the biggest issue in the film was Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. That issue was compounded by C. Robert Cargill, the co-writer of the film, sticking in his ill-advised two cents about Tibetan-Chinese politics as the reasoning for a white Ancient One.

But it’s one thing to write about the whitewashing and it’s another to actually see it with your own eyes. The problems in this film abound. First, you have Swinton. Not only is she The Ancient One, but she’s effectively a spiritual ruler of Nepal. An old Celtic woman is the spiritual ruler of a non-Celtic, non-white people. Fascinating.

Let’s also talk about what Nepal looks like. The film portrayed Nepal as some mystical place without roads or modern transportation. Everyone looked like they were mere seconds away from getting on their knees to pray. Religion might be a huge part of a country, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country have to look like devotees. The film shows a side of Nepal that looks like this:

Kathmandu, Nepal--Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu, Nepal–Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This picture looks similar to the types of crowds Stephen Strange came upon as he was looking for The Ancient One. But Nepal also looks like this:

Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat "This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley." (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat
“This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley.”
(Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The point is there’s a lot more to Nepal, to just Kathmandu, than the film suggests. Is there time to visit every locale in Nepal? Of course not. But there was enough time to not give Nepal the “noble savage” treatment, which means, according to Wikipedia:

A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used in reference to newly created man. “Savage” at that time could mean “wild beast” as well as “wild man”.[2] The phrase later became identified with the idealized picture of “nature’s gentleman”, which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the “feminine” sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.[a] 

Even though the film didn’t have any of the extras speak, it clearly showcased Kathmandu as an idealistically mystical, Othered space, with closeups on holy men and temples. The extras also weren’t wearing Western clothes, something that further separated them from actual depictions of 21st century Nepalese people. Western exports have made their way all around the globe, including Nepal, and as you can see in the above pictures, folks are wearing leather jackets, hoodies, polo shirts, slacks and jeans. Even the woman with the shawl on in the first picture is wearing Westernized sandals, a long-sleeved red shirt and some green pants, and one of the men buying her wares, the guy with the leather jacket, has an iPod. If you took a shot of the extras in the Kathmandu sequence and put it in black and white, it could act as a shot from a film about Nepal in the 1800s, not the 21st century. This is not to say that portraying Nepalese people wearing traditional clothing is anachronistic; what I am saying is that painting a picture of the Nepalese as a people who haven’t been affected by world commerce and capitalism is a false picture.

The “noble savage” idea wasn’t explicit, but it was very subtly implied in order to make Kathmandu seem like a perfect place for The Ancient One and to act as further contrast to Stephen’s New York sensibilities and, indeed, his whiteness.

•The Ancient One is full of crock. Let’s get back to The Ancient One. She’s full of shit.

Sorry to be so blunt and for cursing, but she really is. She was using the dark magic that she forbade her disciples from using to lengthen her own life. She would say she was doing it to protect the earth, but she was actually doing it because of her fear of death. In essence, this makes the big bad, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), actually right about her. So, yes, he’s evil for invoking the intergalactic demon Dormammu in an attempt to take over the world, but just because he’s evil doesn’t mean he’s an idiot. What it does mean is The Ancient One’s hypocrisy is what turned him, a devoted disciple, into a disillusioned mess. Can we talk about how he was crying crocodile tears while spreading the “gospel” about the demon to Stephen while chained up in that suit-harness-thing? To me, it evoked scenes from Thor, in which Loki is crying while hating Thor for being the chosen one; Loki might be the “evil one,” but Loki is also psychologically damaged, simply looking for unconditional love from the Odin, the man whose supposed to be his father. Doesn’t that sound a little like Kaecilius’ dilemma?

 

Marvel Studios

Kaecilius might have gone to the dark side, but, like Loki, he was a conflicted soul who was looking for answers after the person he idolized failed him. If there was a way The Ancient One could have reeled him back in, she should have done it, especially since she already knew how powerful and skilled he was. But the thing that could have possibly swayed him—her giving up her Dormammu powers—was something she wasn’t going to part with. So Kaecilius probably figured, “If she’s going to use them, then why shouldn’t I?” Basically, this whole movie’s plot (minus Stephen’s accident) is her fault.

Also, The Ancient One was just giving out powers willy nilly. She gave Benjamin Bratt’s character Jonathan Pangborn the ability to walk again after a paralyzing accident. She was giving Stephen powers to use his hands again. She herself was bending time to stay alive. She made it seem like she was a benevolent master, but she was just as reckless with her powers as she claimed Stephen was and as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo warned against. Just like Strange, she was using her powers outside the natural order of things.

The Ancient One with the mark of Dormammu on her forehead. (Marvel Studios)

•Mordo is the only one who makes sense, and yet they’re building him up as the villain. How in the heck is Mordo supposed to be the villain, when Mordo is the only one who is keeping the world from being torn apart by Strange’s time meddling?

The Ancient One seemed to suggest that Mordo as a stickler for the rules was something that kept him from being great, or even being a master. I vehemently disagree. It’s Mordo’s insistence to stick by the natural order that made him supremely capable of being the master of the New York Sanctum. Mordo is right 100 percent that the laws of nature shouldn’t be tampered with, and yet it’s the hotshot white guy with a sarcastic mouth who gets to be the new Master. Are you kidding me?

Marvel Studios

Look, Stephen knew how to pick up magic fast. But isn’t Mordo owed something for being The Ancient One’s right hand for so many years? Had he not proven himself? To me, all this smacks of is the person of color being more qualified for a role that ends up going to the white guy who just got to the office a month ago. It smacks of the favoritism and tribalism that exists in society today. It’s why black people often tell their kids they have to be twice as good as their white counterparts in order to get half of the reward. It also smacks of a very white American, imperialistic view point of “We do what we want and get rewarded for it because we’re rebels!” Rebels don’t always need to be applauded. Just take a look at the Confederates.

If the next films present Mordo as the bad guy, I’ll be squarely on Mordo’s side. I know the argument is going to be, “But Doctor Strange helped save the world with his time-bending!” Sure. But Mordo was ready to save the world with his plan. He had his own way of saving the world, and it didn’t involve standing on the razor’s edge of an infinite loop of time, shredding the time-space continuum indefinitely. It involved fighting honestly and bravely and finding a solution that, as Spock would say, didn’t destroy the Prime Directive, and isn’t that how heroes are supposed to fight?

The end of the film sets up a very alarming status quo, something that also comes from real life. Just as the model minority myth wants to put Asian people at the feet of white supremacy and opposed to blackness, Doctor Strange sees Stephen and Wong (played by Benedict Wong) together, fighting evil on Stephen’s own terms, while Mordo decides to cast himself out, pitting himself against Stephen’s way of doing things. Doctor Strange‘s message seems to unconsciously be, “If only Mordo would do things Stephen’s way, just like Wong! Things would be so much easier.” Similarly, it’s like some people in real life thinking, “If only black people would do things our way, just like those industrious Asian people! Things would be so much easier!”

Marvel Studios

• The women in this film are strangely lacking: As the internet has said, it would have been better, much better, if someone like Michelle Yeoh was cast as The Ancient One. Making The Ancient One Celtic in a roundabout way to not create an Asian cariacature only complicated matters; all that was needed was to not create an Asian cariacture. If Yeoh played The Ancient One just as the character was written for Swinton, everything would have been fine; there wouldn’t have been any cariacture lines crossed.

With that said, it seems like this role as a whole would have been a waste of talents for Yeoh anyways. For all of the hooplah about The Ancient One being a “strong female character,” she barely did anything, at least not as much as the hype suggested. She participated in two battles with Kaecilius, and in the second one she was graphically fatally wounded. But we don’t see her do much else outside of instruct Strange, and even then, Mordo picks up where The Ancient One would sometimes leave off. In the end, The Ancient One was yet another woman in the comic book movie universe that has to die for the man’s journey to be fulfilled, so how progressive was her role, really?

Similarly, Rachel McAdams’s Christine is just another love interest, and somehow, she’s even less written than Rachel in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or Natalie Portman’s Jane in the Thor movies. All Christine is there for is to be a battering ram for Strange’s emotional outbursts and as the soft, mothering angel he can come to after he’s changed his ways. McAdams did the best she could with such a thin character, but Christine was barely a character to begin with.

Marvel Studios

Lessons learned:  At the end of the day, it seems like Doctor Strange has proven to be a learning ground for the parties involved, or at the very least, for the director, Scott Derrickson. In a very honest interview with The Daily Beast‘s Jen Yamato, he gave an apology for his version of sidestepping the Asian caricature issue, a version which ended up being just as damaging if not more so. He said that he can’t be mad at those who are opposed to viewing the film.

“I don’t feel [the film’s opponents] are wrong. I was very aware of the racial issues that I was dealing with. But I didn’t really understand the level of pain that’s out there, for people who grew up with movies like I did but didn’t see their own faces up there.”

Seeing how he said he was already aware of the issue of Asian caricature, this was a case of someone believing they had all the knowledge necessary to solve a problem simply because they were “aware” of the issues. This film is a prime example of why creators need to reach out to people of color when making media that squarely affects a particular racial group. Maybe he should have contacted an Asian writer, producer, or actor in the industry for advice. Maybe he and Cargill could have asked Marvel to sign off on an Asian writer to share the co-billing with them; an Asian writer’s perspective could have only helped the film and made the film more respectful to the audiences they were trying not to offend. Hindsight offers a lot of solutions.

But along with Derrickson, if anyone needs to take stock in those solutions, it’s Marvel. Already, Iron Fist has caused a lot of pain with the main character, a character that could be race-bent to give Asian American audiences much needed visibility. Instead, the Asian visibility is coming from the villain and secondary characters, with Iron Fist set up to be yet another white male character who learns “ancient” and “mystical” ways from an Asian teacher.

Thankfully, we have Spider-Man: Homecoming coming up, which is providing Filipino-American and Chinese-American visibility as well as black female visibility. Hopefully Spider-Man, Black Panther, with it’s all-black main cast, and Thor: Ragnarok, which is directed by Indigenous director Taika Waititi, will be the jumping-off point for Marvel films with more representation and more sensitivity to its subject matter and audience demographics.

JUST ADD COLOR’s “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dr. Strange” Online Roundtable featuring Claire Lanay and Keith Chow

Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience.

Each film has its many problems, but to give a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:

Ghost in the Shell

• Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).

Scarlett-Johansson-GITS

•According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.

• Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku, Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”

• Max Landis, the screenwriter of American Ultra, released a video condemning the casting, but also states in his video (as reported by Entertainment Weekly), “The only reason to be upset about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true.

Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rim character Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen.

A video features Japanese participants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the video is that the people interviewed don’t see a problem with Johansson as The Major. But now the video is being used by pro-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate those, particularly Asian Americans, who are against Johansson as The Major.

•Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset.

The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”

Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”

Dr. Strange

• Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetian character as well as an antiquated stereotype of an Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way to create a more updated, non-stereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots. Check her out in the trailer:

(Personal commentary: aside from Swinton as a jarring Ancient One, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch with an nasally American accent is…upsetting.)

•Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she was approached to do the character, she was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”

• C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Dr. Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. (Discussion occurs around the 18 minute mark.)

However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”

Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian actress was chosen.

• Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE.

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

One could say their statement features many fictional statements as far as their film universe goes, because the MCU is still not diverse enough in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to parse through. At first, I was going to write a post providing my point of view, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit this one out. I’ve written on entertainment moves affecting Asian Americans before, but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m not about to wade in any “honorary Asian” waters, especially with how nuanced the issues surrounding these films have become. Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online buddies if I could interview them about their opinions on these films.

Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend co-host of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies.

What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?

Chow: I think like most folks, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s hard to believe that whitewashing is still considered acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these castings are no exception. But in light of the outrage (and lack of box office) that movies like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered, you’d think the studios would start taking the hint.

Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet amused by Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate and ask myself what discussions led to this outcome? Similar to the problems with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these comic book characters were created several decades ago and are inherently racist.  Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in a day and is better suited to unlock the wisdom, magic and skills of these mystic teachings in a manner the savage natives never could – Iron Fist, anyone?

So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a British woman? Could the reason have been that without including another female character, the film would look the way most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest?  OK fine.  Let’s make her a woman.

I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood has an unspoken rule about not allowing more than one person per color per movie or TV show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is more than one person per color, they’re usually a minor/expendable character and therefore, the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Empire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong playing the servant.  They have Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo.  So, of course, they most certainly cannot have another POC playing the Ancient One.  Heavens, no! Too many minorities!  I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.

Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize whitewashing.  Just because you don’t want the character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the character cannot be Asian.  Would The Ancient One originally have announced him/herself as Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making all that Chinese dough… why not make the character Chinese? Have him/her speak Mandarin.  Have him/her walk around with a large neon sign that says “Made in China”.

They’re implying that in order to avoid offending other cultures, they have to erase them.  Are they so lazy that they are not willing to put any thought into how they could modernize these POC characters for today’s audience?

As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments:

To make a blanket statement that there are no Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t see how it would be possible for them to be visible enough to become A-list. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.

The other thing that was mentioned was that there are no Asian actors capable of getting a movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail, flop, bomb.  Yet, nothing changes.  I’m starting to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Johansson is playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi.  It baffles my mind that there are people who don’t see this as offensive.

Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visit The Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?

Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.

I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s caliber would not have taken the role if it was one-note. So why not afford that opportunity to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.

Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least bit curious as to what George Takei could have done with The Ancient One?  Ken Watanabe?  Chow Yun-Fat?…How about Michelle Yeoh?  Joan Chen?  Gong Li?  Bai Ling?

I’ve had so many heated debates and arguments with people about Iron Fist.  The argument for keeping Danny Rand white is that “it’s what the author intended for how that character’s story should be told”. According to that logic, we should stay 100 percent true to the original cannon and lore even if that means 80-plus years of American comic book history has primarily only given us white male leading characters as the hero and a handful of female/POC characters seen mostly as sidekicks, background or filler.

Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s comments after Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the white people’s characters and make some of your own”.  As if no one has tried?  Even if I understood why it’s bemoaned when a POC is cast as a character originally envisioned as white, why is it ok to “steal” our characters who were specifically created to be of color?

As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue.  They rather avoid it than face it head on.  For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cowardly. Am I surprised?  No.  Disappointed?  Yes.  Captain America: Civil War will be their 14th film and only now are they barely getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the film schedule.

I will say that they do seem to be putting in a concerted effort on the TV side.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed her bi-racial parentage.  I’m pleased to see that has been acknowledged since other hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have played fully white characters on shows like Smallville.

Dr. Strange, as a comic book series, draws its inspiration from the 1930s radio series Chandu the Magician, which also features a white man receiving mystic instruction from an Asian teacher, this time an Indian yogi. With all of the stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr. Strange is based in, how do you feel the film should have been approached (despite the fact that we haven’t seen the full movie)? With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Strange and set pictures featuring non-Asian actors in Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-esque clothes, how do you feel about the appropriation factor of the film? 

Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah, you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point, Hollywood should start casting more POC leads just to stand out from the pack. Studies have already proven those films make more money anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and even Daredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.

Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented roster.  I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt Cumberbatch will bring something interesting to the role.  Tilda Swinton also played a role originally meant for a male in the movie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no way defined by gender or race regardless of the fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel.  Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles.  For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.

As for them playing dress up in monk-esque attire?  Appropriation is unavoidable.  I’ll say this – I have a problem with folks using all of my toys but not allowing me to play with them.

Swinton has come out and said that the way she was approached for the role was never under the guise that she was playing an Asian man and that she’s confident in how she’s portrayed the character in the film. How do you feel about her statement? Also, what do you think about the compounded problem Marvel has created by whitewashing a character, yet adding diversity by making the character a woman?

Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Just because they gender bent the character doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being racist. If they were going to change the character, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s with all the orientalism in the setting? Even then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet another POC character and erased him from existence.

That goes back to what I said earlier, she may not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t whitewash the character. They still took an originally Asian character and bent over backwards to come up with a reason for why said character had to be played by a white person. This is the double standard that’s the most frustrating. When I called for an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to come up with every justifiable reason for the suggestion, how an Asian American would not alter the character whatsoever. But white folks are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”

Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films (as provided by Claire Lanay)
  • BORIS KARLOFF
    Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ 1932
  • KATHERINE HEPBURN
    Jade in ‘Dragon Seed’ 1944
  • JOHN WAYNE
    Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ 1956
  • MARLON BRANDO
    Sakini in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ 1956
  • MICKEY ROONEY
    Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ 1961
  • ELIZABETH TAYLOR
    Cleopatra in ‘Cleopatra’ 1963
  • DAVID CARRADINE
    Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ 1972-1975 &
    ‘Kung Fu: The Legend Continues’ 1993-1997
  • FISHER STEVENS
    Ben Jabituya in ‘Short Circuit’ 1986
  • LIAM NEESON
    Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ 2005
  • JUSTIN CHATWIN
    Goku in ‘Dragonball Evolution’ 2009
  • JAKE GYLLENHAAL
    Dastan in ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ 2010
  • NOAH RINGER, NICOLA PELTZ, JACKSON RATHBONE
    Aang, Katara, Sokka in ‘The Last Airbender’ 2010
  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
    Khan Noonien Singh in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ 2013
  • JOHNNY DEPP
    Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger’ 2013
  • CHRISTIAN BALE, JOEL EDGERTON
    Moses, Ramses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 2014
  • EMMA STONE
    Ng in ‘Aloha’ 2015
  • ROONEY MARA
    Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ 2015
  • GERARD BUTLER, NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU
    Set, Horus in ‘Gods of Egypt’ 2016
  • TILDA SWINTON
    Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange’ 2016
  • SCARLETT JOHANSSON
    Motoko Kusanagi in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 2017

Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is?

Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call it Ghost in the Shell?  If you’re going to remove the character’s backstory and culture, then call it something else.  At least Tom Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  It was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill.  They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history.  Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya?

The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson playing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?

Chow: The way we view and discuss race in America is very different than how people in other countries view and discuss race. Japan has its own issues with how it views race and ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans in America.

To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t the problem. My advocating for Asian American actors has nothing to do with Chinese moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves.

Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell is because they already have their own media infrastructure.  They already have their own, actors, singers, dancers, writers, producers, directors.  They already have their own content made for them by them.  So they don’t really care about one movie with one white actress.  In this country, Hollywood gives us less than a handful of opportunities to see ourselves represented in movies and television, so of course we’re clamoring for whatever crumbs and scraps are tossed our way.  The rest of the world soaks up our content, but we don’t promote or watch content from the rest of the world.  That makes seeing diversity in American media all the more important to POC in this country because it’s such a rarity.

Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful.  Do I think a Black Widow movie would be the better option for Johansson?  Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash or some struggling actress trying to make her big break.  She didn’t have to say yes to Ghost in the Shell.

I want to see Doctor Strange.  Controversy aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I’ll take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  Even though the nasty discourse has left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curious to see how they build towards The Defenders.  Can’t wait to see Luke Cage!  Will I watch Ghost in the Shell?  Nah, I’ll be skipping that one.

Recently, several actresses of Asian descent have called The Major “blackface,” launching another layer to the outrage. Do you think about the controversy over calling such casting “blackface,” despite the term “yellowface” in existence?

Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, primarily because yellowface is an offensive and racist enough practice on its own — but I get why Constance felt she had to make it. One of the problems is that most people think race in America is binary. This has always been part of the struggle for Asian Americans when discussing race in that context.

Often in matters of race, Asian Americans are only perceived depending on their relation to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t think that excuses co-opting black struggle to make a point. I think as a community we have to be mindful about how we coalition build and support one another without being anti-black in the process. This is why the backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was disheartening. This was an example of a pan-ethnic protest against the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, but for whatever reason non-black POCs thought their issues were being ignored. It didn’t help that during the telecast aired, Asians were still openly mocked.

So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].

Lanay: As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with friends and influences of all backgrounds… As someone who has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is deeply proud to call many intelligent, creative, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to use the term “blackface” over the term “yellowface” in regards to what we’re discussing here.  She specifically said “blackface” because she thought it would be more “evocative”.

While I fully appreciate the outrage towards her comments, I have some idea of where she’s coming from. During the Oscars telecast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room.  So all the more reason people in the Asian community were upset and insulted by three little Asian kids being paraded on stage to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.

While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive or hostile, I can understand why Wu and many others were incensed by these jokes during a show that was basically hammering diversity down people’s throats.  Yes, there were no Black nominees.  There were no Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or LGBT ones either (as far as I know).

…When I came across the “blackface” comment, my first thought was: “Why all of the sudden, are Asians getting angry now?  Why weren’t they speaking out and standing up when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?”  I was starting to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn.  Why are the rest of them so late to the party?

…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC.  We should be working together.  It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too.

What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles?

Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color. 

Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles.  They’re not listening.  They don’t care. They wanted to cast name-actors, so they did.  White is the standard of beauty.  White is the grade for which excellence is measured.  White is the default setting.  Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality.

Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel.  She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim.  Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan.  She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered.  I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell.

There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed.  There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded.  Hollywood learns nothing.  The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually.  I hope I’m still around to see that change.  Scratch that.  I am going to be part of that change. ♦

The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best:

“For a long time, I hated being Asian.  I hated the way I looked.  I hated not getting the auditions I wanted.  I hated not being taken seriously.  My mother would always tell me not to make waves.  With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves!  Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin.  Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”

Other articles to check out:

#S4MBlerds: Dear Hollywood, whitewashing doesn’t make better movies|Blavity

Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors|Complex

6 Japanese Actresses Who Could (and Should!) Replace Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’|Yahoo

Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters|L.A. Times

N.O.C. One-Shot: Whitewashing in Black and Yellow| The Nerds of Color

Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell|The Nerds of Color

Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians|Media Diversified

What a Shitty Week to be an Asian American Woman in Hollywood|The Nerds of Color

Constance Wu And Ming-Na Wen Protest Hollywood’s Whitewashing Of “Ghost In The Shell”|Buzzfeed

Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?|New York Times

Ed Skrein shows how easy it is to stand against whitewashing

Ed Skrein has done what we’ve wanted other filthy rich movie stars who can afford to miss a whitewashing role to do—he turned down a whitewashing role, and offered a quick primer on whitewashing to the folks who might not get it.

Skrein was supposed to play Ben Daimio in Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen. In the comics, Ben is a Japanese-American character. However, Skrein clearly isn’t and he was roundly criticized for accepting the role on social media. According to his explanation, he didn’t even know the role was whitewashed when he took it.

Here’s his statement in full:

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and David Harbour, who is taking over the Hellboy role from Ron Perlman, have put forth their votes of approval:

What’s interesting is that Skrein notes that he himself has a family of mixed heritage. Skrein, who is of Jewish Austrian and English descent, states his own background has made him more aware of these representation issues, and this propelled him to take the right step and give up the role so the casting folks can rightfully cast an actor of Japanese heritage (or, as casting folks are wont to do, cast any East Asian person) for the role.

What Skrein’s done is basically show actors who have taken on whitewashed roles that there was no reason for them to accept those roles, especially (such as the case with Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Death Note) if the roles have already been clearly established in pop culture as Asian characters. Skrein—whether he knows it or not—has also laid down the gauntlet for other stars who take on whitewashed roles. They can’t use any excuses now—if they get wind of controversy and they stay in the role, then they have to make a choice to either stay in the role and actively deny visibility to a people, or to take the grander moral gesture of bowing out of a role and making way for someone who should have gotten cast in the first place.

While Skrein’s decision is something to clap for, remember that this is the only actor so far to do this in the entire whitewashing controversy that’s taken its toll on several films this year (and will continue to do so next year with Alita: Battle Angel, which Skrein is ironically a part of). It would be great if more actors could do this—instead of looking for their pocketbook, which is already lined to the hilt, it’d be nice if more actors used their high profile for good and give deference to underrepresented POC actors who are struggling to get the breaks white or white-passing actors get.

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Racially Insensitive Casting: Peter Dinklage as Hervé Villechiaze (HBO’s “My Dinner with Hervé”)

Hollywood continues to mystify the masses asking for proper (keyword: proper) representation with HBO’s upcoming project, My Dinner with Hervé, detailing a moment in time with Fantasy Island star Hervé VillechaizeAccording to The A.V. Club, HBO’s project supposedly recounts “‘a life-changing’ encounter Villechaize…and a struggling journalist in 1993, the year the Fantasy Island star killed himself at the age of 50.” HBO has released the first image the TV movie starring Jamie Dornan as the journalist in question, Danny Tate, and Peter Dinklage as Villechaize.

If the image looks weird, it’s because Dinklage, unfortunately, pulling a brownface moment. In real life, Villechaize was half-Filipino and half-English. Dinklage, on the other hand, isn’t.

What was the thought process behind this casting decision? More importantly, what was the thought process behind Dinklage, who understands the annoyance of playing stereotypical roles, taking it?

Dinklage, who has achondroplasia (one of the common causes of dwarfism), has been very outspoken about the types of roles he feels are stereotypical for actors with dwarfism. As he told The New York Times in a 2012 interview, he acted onstage and would refuse to book commercial jobs that would have him playing leprechauns or elves. As the article quotes Dinklage as saying in past interview to a theater website, “What I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”

Even though Dinklage’s defining role as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones turned out to be the best of all possible worlds as far as a role goes, Dinklage was initially hesitant about it because of his hesitancy about playing dwarves in fantasy in general, particularly after just playing dwarf character Trumpkin in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, in which he acted under a huge beard. He wanted to make sure the character in Game of Thrones wouldn’t have a beard or pointy shoes.

“Dwarves in these genres always have this look,” he said. “My guard was up. Not even my guard—my metal fence, my barbed wire was up. Even The Lord of the Rings had dwarf-tossing jokes in it. It’s like, Really?

Of course, as we know now, Tyrion Lannister is nothing like a stereotypical fantasy character, which led to Dinklage signing on.

With Dinklage’s clear awareness at the issues facing actors with a disability such as his own, why choose this role, which is essentially taking an opportunity from someone else who needs a big break and could crush it? It seems like the answer lies in one main issue: the lack of roles that are available to actors with dwarfism–in other words, the pervading practice of ableism as the code of business for Hollywood casting.

At the risk of sounding like I’m giving Dinklage an out (I’m certainly not), a role like Hervé Villechiaze doesn’t come around everyday—a role that specifically highlights an actor with dwarfism in an attempt to show the human behind the limiting role he played on television. The casting process, being what it is, was probably HBO making a beeline to Dinklage’s agent, since Dinklage is practically the only hot actor who can fill the role and bring an authenticity to it. With the role being what it is, it’s not a surprise that Dinklage would take it. In all of these films with whitewashing, it’s never a surprise as to why the actors take it—with roles in “swords and sandals” movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings or sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell, the draw is money, higher star wattage, and more big roles down the road.

However, while Dinklage will most certainly bring authenticity to the role from his experience as a person with dwarfism, he clearly can’t bring authenticity to it as far as racial experiences go, and biracial experiences to be specific. If you have to darken your skin because the person you’re playing is a person of color, it’s clear you probably shouldn’t be playing the part.

As a whole, Hollywood isn’t a place that utilizes lateral thinking often; it might seem like Dinklage is the only game in town, but there are, in fact, tons of actors with dwarfism who have been playing fantasy dwarves and dehumanizing roles for years who could also be just as good as Dinklage in this role, if not better. Take for instance, Ronald Lee Clark, an actor who appeared alongside other veteran character actors with dwarfism like Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, and Jordan Prentice in Mirror, Mirror. While Clark might not be Filipino, he is actually Asian, which for Hollywood standards would be a step in the right direction. If Clark was given the chance to audition, who’s to say he wouldn’t have aced it? At the very least, the makeup team wouldn’t need to commit the movie-making sin of brownface.

Also, if I could find Clark by utilizing my memory and an IMDB search, couldn’t the casting office have done the same? Specifically, couldn’t they have scoured Hollywood for an actor who had dwarfism and was also Filipino? Of course, if they actually wanted to. Sure, they wouldn’t get a “big name,” as it were, but arguably, Dinklage himself wasn’t a super big name, even with the Chronicles of Narnia credit, before he was given a chance with Game of Thrones. His role could have easily gone to another actor of typical size who’d be willing to play smaller with the help of movie magic. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with Gary Oldman playing a dwarf in the film Tiptoes, a film where Dinklage himself played a family friend (as referenced in the New York Times interview).

For this article, I reached out to Vilissa Thompson, disability advocate and owner of Ramp Your Voice!. Her take expresses much of the same confusion and irritation about Dinklage being cast as a disabled person of color.

“Authentic representation of disabled people, whether fictional characters or real-life persons, is hard to come by due to many factors, such as cripping up, stereotypical portrayals, and a resistance to show diverse disabled perspectives,” she said. “What occurred with the Peter Dinklage situation is upsetting because we finally have a role that a disabled person should be casted in, and even that was done incorrectly by the whitewashing.”

“This is classic Hollywood, but it’s perplexing to me how you get one aspect of the casting correct (hiring an actually disabled actor) and not the whole thing (hiring a white man instead of an actor of color),” sie said. “It’s disappointing that Hollywood continues to not support disabled actors of color. What a missed opportunity for little people of color to be represented fully. Hollywood has a #DisabilityTooWhite issue when it comes to disabled people of color and media representation – this adds to it. Not only do we not see our stories on the big and small screens; now we have to be concerned about being whitewashed, too?”

It would seem that fear of whitewashing is yet another hurdle disabled actors of color and audience members of color alike have to face when it comes to proper representation. Time will tell if My Dinner with Hervé will get the same social media treatment Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Iron Fist received when it tried to pass off a white actor as an Asian character.

Racially insensitive casting: Zach McGowan as Ben Kanahele in “Ni’ihau”

Nerdy Asians/Twitter

Another day, another whitewashing controversy. This one has been brewing for some days now, and it involves a historical film called Ni’ihau.

The film is based on a true story of a Japanese WWII pilot crash landing on Hawaii, where he was taken in by local leader Ben Kanahele. Here’s the full scoop from Deadline:

…Shigenori Nishikaichi, an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilott, crash-landed his Zero on the eponymous Hawaiian island after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. [Zach] McGowan will play Ben Kanahele, an island leader who saves Nishikaichi before learning his part in the attack. When the circumstances became apparent, Nishikaichi was apprehended but received assistance from locals, taking hostages and attempting to overcome his captors. Kanahele ultimately killed Nishikaichi and was decorated for his part in stopping the takeover.
The Ni’ihau Incident led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066, which led directly to the mass internment of 119,803 Japanese-American men, women and children until the end of the war.

27 Ten Productions’ Ken Petrie said that with this film being a true story, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” But apparently, we’re expected to accept Black Sails‘ Zach McGowan as Ben Kanahele. Hasn’t anyone learned anything from the outrage seen around the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall, Doctor Strange, Alohaand plenty of other films?

Also, it looks like the film is shaping up to be told in a classic “John Wayne film” way. With McGowan playing the heroic leader (similar to how Wayne played POC historical heroes), it seems like the casting will go towards having a Japanese actor to play Nishikaichi, the villain. That way, they can have the white hero killing the Asian antagonist, saving the day and the native Hawaiian population (who will, of course, be played by actual native Hawaiians).

Do I need to talk at length about what’s wrong? It should be clear by now, especially if you read the articles linked above. This kind of ish has got to stop because now it’s getting ridiculous.

I’ll let Twitter speak for me because I’m tired.

Exclusive Interview: “Pretty Dudes” creator Chance Calloway on the power of inclusive webseries

Calloway with Carlin James (left), Dionysio Basco (center) and Leo Lam (right) (Pretty Dudes/Twitter)

You learned a little bit about the inner-workings of Pretty Dude creator Chance Calloway in his #RepresentYourStory article; now he’s back in a full-length interview!

Pretty Dudes has recently wrapped its two-part season finale as well as filming for its theme song music video, all of which is available on the series’ YouTube page. Calloway, who is currently in the middle of casting for the second season, said he is even more consumed with the mission to cast inclusively.

“We purposefully put out a call for more actors with marginalized backgrounds and conditions,”  he said. “We want people with skin conditions or disabilities, people who you typically don’t see represented on screen. …We want everybody[.]”

I was happy to speak to Calloway about why he created Pretty Dudes, why he thinks fans are attracted to the series, and his take on the talk about representation that’s consuming Hollywood at the moment.

Go check out the webseries, which you can watch here. You can find Calloway on Twitter. Pretty Dudes releases a new episode each Tuesday, and you can also keep up with Pretty Dudes on Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Facebook. You can also support Pretty Dudes through a donation via PayPal.


What was the inspiration for Pretty Dudes?

I would say probably the main thing is that I love those sitcoms where everyone lives in one house, like The Golden Girls and Living Single. But…they’re pretty much monochromatic, no matter how you look at it. So…I really liked the idea of having an inclusive environment where we’d be able to talk about a lot of different things, not just have, “Oh, this week, the Latino neighbor comes over,” or “this week, we have the gay sister.” I wanted it to be every week. I figured that would free up more storytelling, but that is also the reality for most people, myself included–we have people with different lifestyles than we have, so I wanted to really explore that and put that out there because I’m thinking if I’m…missing that, then there are other people as well.

A lot of your viewers are clamoring for that storytelling. How important was it for you to have that kind of diversity and the kind of cast that you do have? How important was it for you to cast a multicultural range of actors?

It was very important. When we were doing the initial casting, the only role we specifically requested a certain race for was Ellington because we’d set up this entire storyline of him being black. But all the other characters [ethnicities] weren’t mandatory. [For some of the characters] I specifically did not ask for any Caucasian actors because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of white actors who could get cast in anything else and not have an opportunity for these actors of color who are working in the industry but never get to play any three-dimensional roles. I wanted to have that reality play out based on the casting, and thankfully, we were able to pull it off.

Webseries including yours are pushing Hollywood further more than the mainstream is. What do you think about the fact that there are a lot of webseries out there doing what folks have wanted Hollywood to do for a long time?

I think it’s great. The great thing and difficult thing about making webseries is that they’re often independently funded. So even though that creates a financial struggle, it allows for a freedom in storytelling and in choices of how you tell that story. So, the mainstream industry won’t greenlight something because they want something that’s safe. Whereas if I just wanted to make it, I could just make it, and a viewer out there could see it and get exposed to a whole world they never would have been exposed to before if it wasn’t for [a] particular series. There are a lot of things about the trans experience or the lesbian experience that I had no knowledge of until I started watching webseries and that’s something that you’re not going to get from Hollywood. I think that’s great because we can be bold in our storytelling and we can really do whatever we want. I think that’s huge.

What kind of response have you gotten from fans of Pretty Dudes?

Oh gosh! It’s been really positive. I’ve been really excited because you never know what you’re going to get. We had pretty much filmed the entire season before the first episode came out…So to put that much blind faith and trust into a project when you don’t know what the response is going to be is a little nerve-wracking. But the stories we keep hearing from people is “This happened to me” or “This happened to my friend,” and people who are really appreciating the inclusion in the storytelling. So, that’s positive.

The cast of “Pretty Dudes” (Pretty Dudes/Twitter)

In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about casting, whitewashing, inclusion, diversity, erasure, all that kind of stuff.

Yes.

As someone who is trying to make stuff that is combating those issues, how have you been taking in the conversations that have been going on right now?

Two-fold. One is that over the last five years, the majority of films that have focused on whitewashing, on white savior narratives have bombed spectacularly at the box office, so that’s been so vindicating–other people aren’t just accepting what Hollywood’s putting out. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating because it reminds you that these are the tastemakers, so to speak, who keep greenlighting these things, which have bombed spectacularly, then you have wonderful content that don’t have any kind of backing who are changing the game, who are making great strides, and it makes you wonder how long it’s going to take before Hollywood wakes up and realizes [this] is where it’s at.

You have a Hollywood film like Hidden Figures, films like Moonlight, Get Out, that have done amazing things, because people are looking for something fresh; people are looking to see themselves represented. It really kind of boggles the mind that you have Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, and they’ll come up with any excuse [for] whitewashing. They’ll even bring up feminism to excuse whitewashing, as if those two things don’t overlap in the Venn Diagram of representation and where Hollywood needs to move to. Like the whole thing with Tilda Swinton [in Marvel’s Doctor Strange]–[the excuse is] it’s so powerful to cast a woman, well they could have cast an Asian woman in Doctor Strange. I don’t get why that’s when things are so quick to descend [into] whitewashing and using white as the default and expecting the rest of us to just kind of show up for it as if we’re okay with it.

And even that argument with feminism–it basically says that white women are women and everyone else is just people.

Right, right!

That doesn’t make any sense at all because like you said with Doctor Strange, if they wanted a female Ancient One, they could have cast any woman. An Asian woman preferably, but any woman could have been cast, it would have been a nod towards feminism, not just a white woman.

Right, exactly. And then they’ll bring up tropes and that they’re trying to protect from those tropes. “If we had cast an Asian man, then we would have been accused of this.” If you look at a lot of the conversations that white filmmakers are [having], they’re never, ever conflicting with people of color. It’s always them saying “People would have said.” Well, who did you talk to? Did you have a room of people with varying opinions and went forth from there? The answer’s always “No,” otherwise, that’s what they’d be referencing. They would be saying, “We had test audiences,” or “We talked to this group of people,” but it’s always like, “We know that these types of people would have said this.” Well, did you ask?

…There needs to be diversity behind the screen as well as in front of the screen. The reason why people behind the screen keep making those mistakes…is because they’re not having conversations among a diverse group. You can go back to the Project Greenlight episode where Matt Damon basically shouts down Effie Brown, just shouts her down about her being wrong instead of listening. You have room for the white guys and one black woman, and you’re not going to listen to the black woman when she’s talking about diversity in the casting, and that’s where the major problems come in.

I purposefully reach out to have female crewmembers on Pretty Dudes, because with me writing the majority of the episodes–even though I’m an at intersection [of being] a gay black man, that still has nothing to do with the fact that I’m writing women characters. So, I know that what I’m writing may be problematic, so I want as many women to read it and tell me what they think as possible because I am not a woman, and I’ll never be a woman. I don’t know what that’s like. In order for me to write a story or a character that’s not problematic, I need voices behind the screen who are going to give me a different point of view. If you look at the situation with Iron Fist or even Ghost in the Shell, you have a lot of white men who are telling you what you’re supposed to think and feel. I’m kinda over that.

Or you have Scarlett Johannson telling you what to think. I still don’t understand how she thinks we’re supposed to think she’s not playing an Asian woman.

Thank God for Black Twitter and Shaun [Lau] of No, Totally and all the other voices out there [including] Asyiqin Haron [for Geeks of Color]. I love the fact that people are bold enough to speak up on a platform that we do have, to say “No, this is not good and these are the reasons why.” If you’re still [not listening], then you are choosing not to listen. It’s just like the co-creator of[the Iron Fist comic book] when he referred to Asian people as Orientals and he said, ‘I know that’s not the word.’ Okay, so you’re blatantly being racist, you’re blatantly showing that you’re unwilling to change. That’s the reality of it all, just blatant disregard. I call it “willful ignorance” of a lot of people, to just live in this darkness because that’s what they’re comfortable with, and they feel it doesn’t impact them. White isn’t the default, and that really needs to change.

Onto a lighter topic, what shows do you watch on a regular basis?

I just started Riverdale, which is a guilty pleasure of mine because it’s just diverse enough for me to feel like, “Okay, cool.” I’m a huge Archie Comics fan. I’m still finishing up Black Mirror. I think I only have one episode left. That show is amazing. I just started Season One of How to Get Away with Murder because I’m super behind. …I feel like when this interview is over I’m going to to think of five more, but those are the ones I’m watching. I’ll always go back to my tried-and-trues, which are A Different WorldGolden Girls, and Community. I’ll watch those any day of the week.

I do want to give shout out–my friend Danielle Truett, her show Rebel just started on BET. I love that this is a show about police brutality through the eyes of a black woman, especially because black women are usually at the forefront of all social change–if you have Hollywood tell it, that’s not the case. But Black Lives Matter is started and led by black woman, and I love that Rebel is looking through those eyes as well.

My final question–with everything that we’ve talked about, where do you see the industry going as far as being more inclusive?

What I think what’s happening is that people are gravitating towards inclusive filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga. You can see the people who have the…passion to be more inclusive are the ones who are getting an audience–Donald Glover with Atlanta, Issa Rae with Insecure. I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to keep seeing people watching those shows, those channels, those movies, and Hollywood’s going to have to change or Hollywood’s going to continue to stay behind the longer they stay set in their ways. It’s likely that the industry could recover [or] the industry’s going to metamorphosize into something we don’t completely anticipate, because it’s fascinating that a film like Moonlight won Best Picture. Now, all of these other filmmakers like me, I all of a sudden thought after Barry Jenkins won that I had superpowers. …You just put in the dedication and the talent, and you can change the course.

There are a lot of upcoming filmmakers…who are invigorated by what they’re seeing and by seeing this type of representation, it’s pretty inescapable. But I think we also have to do that not just for black people and queer people, but we have to continue doing that for Asian people and Indigenous people and Latinos. We have to keep going forward and I think it’s also important that we band together, as we did with Ghost in the Shell. All of the marginalized communities have to support each other; that’s the only way we’re going to overturn how things are now.♦