Tag Archives: whitewashing

What’s with Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Columbian drug lord Griselda Blanco?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have seen the high-budget trailer for Lifetime’s Griselda Blanco biopic, Cocaine Godmother. If not, here you go:

If you’re astute to representation issues, you probably know what I’m going to point out as the problem. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Welsh woman, is playing Blanco, a Colombian woman. Why is she, though?

There are plenty Latina actresses who could have played this role, and in fact, there is one who has been lobbying for this role for a very long time–Jennifer Lopez. Lopez has been jonesing to play Blanco for years, and has created a deal with HBO to bring her TV movie to life (as to when that movie is coming remains to be seen).

Surprisingly, it’s also not the first time Zeta-Jones has been tapped to play Blanco; she was initially supposed to play the Queen of Cocaine in a biopic called The Godmother. According to W Magazine, Zeta-Jones won the role over…Jennifer Lopez. According to a source to The Sunday Times in 2016, despite Lopez’s hard lobbying for the role, she didn’t win out because “she doesn’t have the acting quality to pull it off.”

Today, neither woman are in the role–it now belongs to Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). But both women are gunning to have the last word on Blanco’s life. Right now, we’re seeing Zeta-Jones’ vanity project in the lead.

This gets back to the main point of this article–why is a non-Latina actress playing a Latina figure? From where I’m sitting, it seems like another case of Hollywood (and maybe even Zeta-Jones herself) believing in casting white actors in non-white roles because they have an ethnic “look.” It’s another, subtler kind of whitewashing.

There’s a reason Zeta-Jones has been able to play Latina on more than one occasion–she played a Latina character in The Mask of Zorro opposite Antonio Banderas–and that’s because she’s a white woman who has ethnically-ambiguous looks. Casting-wise, Zeta-Jones fits the model Hollywood looks for when casting a stereotypical non-black “Latina” role; she’s, as Hollywood would describe her, “exotic” thanks to her olive skin and curvy features. But casting her also comes with the added bonus of whiteness, which adds “credibility,” and “name recognition” to the role. In this way, Zeta-Jones can play both sides, having her cake and eating it, too.

But in the stills and trailer for Cocaine Godmother, you can still see Zeta-Jones exaggerating her already ethnically-ambiguous features to the point where it starts becoming character makeup. Her naturally olive skin is bronzed even further to get it closer to Blanco’s, making her skin look like it has an unnatural tan. Her nose is somehow contoured and highlighted to look even more bulbous in an effort to match Blanco’s nose in real life. The overall look is meant to make her look less like a Welsh-English woman and more like a woman of color–the makeup treatment doesn’t want you to equate Zeta-Jones’ performance with brownface, but let’s face it; it’s brownface.

This is also not the first time a white actress has used ethnic ambiguity to their advantage. Shirley Maclaine, who has naturally hooded eyes, was able to do it in the 1962 film that’s basically posits a white woman stealing a role from a Japanese woman as a comedy, My Geisha, and in 1966’s Gambit, in which she plays opposite Michael Caine as “exotic Eurasian showgirl” Nicole Chang. Most recently, Floriana Lima, an Italian-American actress, was able to use her looks to play Latina Supergirl character Maggie Sawyer. Many more examples exist beyond these two.

Zeta-Jones is looking to have her cake and eat it too again with Cocaine Godmother. But this time, there’s a little bit of pushback.

The noise around this film is only going to grow the closer we get to the film’s 2018 TV premiere. We’ll see how the film handles the impending whitewashing discussion it’ll inevitably come up against.

Kemal Pamuk: A “Downton Abbey” autopsy of the series’ first needless casualty

Apparently, there’s a special Downton Abbey surprise coming. According to Facebook:

According to Digital Spy, it could be the long-awaited, long-rumored Downton Abbey movie. Fans of the show, which ended in 2015, will probably thrilled. If you’ve followed me for a long time, then you’ll know that I was once a fan (and eventual hate-watcher) of Downton Abbey, so I’ve got my own two cents on the idea of a movie as well. But since it seems like Downton Abbey is about to come back into our lexicon, I’d like to push the conversation toward one long-forgotten character that didn’t get the time he deserved, nor the representation he needed. No, I’m not talking about Thomas, although he needs some love too. Who I’m talking about right now is Kemal Pamuk, the diplomat from Turkey.

The sad case of Kemal Pamuk

Pamuk dies in Mary’s bed. (Downton Abbey Wikia)

Introducing Pamuk into the first season story of Downton Abbey was, I thought at the time, going to provide some much needed drama to the entire Mary and Matthew dynamic. In fact, I was hoping Mary would have ended up with Pamuk since the alternative, Matthew, was her cousin. (Social mores might have been different back then, but if an episode of Poirot, “After the Funeral,” can discuss how bad it is to have an affair with your cousin, then maybe Downton Abbey shouldn’t have been pushing it so hard.)

However, Pamuk wasn’t meant to be around for long. In fact, he was meant to weirdly coerce Mary into having sex, have a heart attack in Mary’s bed from a “heart condition,” and then get stuffed in a broom closet, never to be seen again (or discovered as a mummy by one of the poor maids).

Supposedly, Julian Fellowes, the man behind Downton Abbey, said Pamuk’s early death was inspired by real life. According to what he told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2011, Fellowes told the story of the man used as the inspiration for Pamuk (according to the Telegraph):

“I did enjoy the death of Pamuk because it was true. That story came from a friend of ours. He had a great house and he was looking through a great aunt’s diary in which he found an account of a visiting diplomat who died. In the house there was a passageway only to be used by single women to go to their rooms. One of them had smuggled this diplomat into her room and he died in the middle of doing it!

She was absolutely at her wits’ end–this was about 1890. She knocked on the next door and the blameless matron in there realise[d] at once that if this story came out it would touch them all and there would be a great scandal. To avoid it they woke up all the other single women in the passageway and this group of dowagers and debutantes lifted the corpse and carried it to his own bed.

Our friend looked up the diary of his great grandfather at the same period and in it he found a note simply saying ‘We had a tragedy-nice Mr. so and so was found dead in his bed.’ Those ladies got away with it! When I heard that story I thought, ‘One day this will come in handy…!”

I get that, as a bit of cheeky, macabre fun, the story of the dead diplomat is something that would work great in a show that wants to be a subversive take on the traditional costume drama. (Is Downton Abbey really subversive? You be the judge.) But wasn’t it also a waste of a character? When the episode aired, those of us new to Fellowes (like me) weren’t yet aware of how much Fellowes uses shortcuts disguised as cheek in his storytelling. In the latter seasons, the reliance on quick shock and tidy storytelling bows became an unfortunate part of the norm. Pamuk’s death is the first instance of shortcutting in Downton Abbey.

Pamuk and the “sexual exotic” stereotype

Valentino as the  sequel “The Sheik,” “The Son of The Sheik”. (Public Domain)

One of the things I’ve realized after the end of Downton Abbey is that Pamuk was basically a “hypersexual ethnic” role. Pamuk is the son of the Turkish sultan, and he does have a big role in the Turkish government. But none of that is focused on; instead, what’s the big focus is how he’s a primal, sexual character. Yes, Theo James is hot. But it’s really annoying that Pamuk’s only defining characteristic is that he’s horny.

According to the “Arabface” page of racist-stereotypes.com, Middle Eastern characters have often been seen as a multitude of negative stereotypes, including the sexually-crazed lech. “For centuries the Arab has played the role of villain, seducer, hustler and thief — the barbarian lurking at the gates of civilization,” states the site.

Arabs trying to abduct, rape, and or kill fair skinned Western maidens has been another very popular theme that dates to the earliest days of filmmaking. In Captured by Bedouins (1912) marauding tribesmen kidnap a Western girl, try to seduce her, and then demand a ransom for her return. Their plans are thwarted when the girl’s British officer fiancée sneaks into their camp and rescues her.

Several films with the same theme were popular in the 1980s; desert sheikhs abducting and threatening to rape Western maidens; Brook Shields in Sahara (1983), Goldie Hawn in Protocol (1984), Bo Derek in Bolero (1984), and Kim Basinger in Never Say Never Again (1986).

The idea of the exotic and sexual Middle Eastern man can also be used as sexual currency, or as Arabstereotypes.com so aptly describes it, as “dangerous romantic heroes.” This is seen in 1921’s The Sheik, in which the title character, played by 1920s heartthrob Valentino, saves the life of a white woman who was about to be raped by another sheik. Just so happens Valentino’s character isn’t actually Middle Eastern, but the rapist sheik actually is.

In the film, Valentino plays an Arab who kidnaps a white woman and holds her captive, waiting for her to fall in love with him. When she escapes and is kidnapped by another Arab sheik who plans to rape her, Valentino’s character becomes the romantic rescuer of women (who the storyline later reveals, is not in fact Arab).

The site also outlines how Harlequin novels also draw from the sheik stereotype to draw readers into the fantasy of a dangerous, exotic ideal.

Harlequin romance novels tend to have a common storyline of white women being abducted by Arab men and falling in love with them in the process. The Sheik, written by E.M. Hull in 1919, is the first known Harlequin novel based on a romance between a white woman and an Arab sheik, which initiated a genre that continues to the present. Many contemporary Harlequin novels revolve around the figure of the sheik as a domineering seducer and abductor of women who are either Arab or European, or Euro-American. In these storylines, Arab men are either threatening, or sites of romantic intrigue, and white men are often needed to rescue the damsel in distress.

Looking back at his death, it’s clear to me that Pamuk probably had a lot more he could have offered as a character instead of getting the short end of the stick with his awful storyline. At best, he could have been a viable threat to Matthew’s eventual love for Mary (because at the time Pamuk comes on the scene, Matthew could care less about Mary). However, he’s portrayed at his absolute worst. That is to say, he’s portrayed simply as a dick, in all senses of the word.

What about actual Turkish actors? 

(L) Theo James as Pamuk, (R) Turkish-Australian actor Deniz Akdeniz, who could have been a great Pamuk.

The stereotype Pamuk plays into is one thing. Add on top of that the fact that the character isn’t played by a Middle Eastern actor to begin with.

Theo James is British with Greek ancestry. While he might have more tan skin than the average Anglo-Saxon, a Middle Easterner darker skin doesn’t make.

It seems like his casting was consistent with lazy casting that figures that any person with a tan (natural or otherwise) can play any ethnicity and race. As I called it in my article about Henry Zaga being cast as Afro-Latinx X-Man Sunspot, being “white ethnic” grants you a specific set of privileges. In short, the amount of roles you could play are endless.

“As a white actor, Zaga could audition for–and land– as many leading roles as he wants. As a “white ethnic” actor, he can take not only traditionally white roles, but also those that call for non-white roles as well, such as Sunspot. Another example of this is Zach McGowan, a white actor who, because of his slightly darker “surfer boy” look, has been cast to play native Hawaiian historical figure Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau.”

Granted, if a Turkish actor did portray Pamuk, the character itself would have to have been rewritten. It’d be useless to have proper representation only for the character to instantly die. But if Pamuk had a real storyline, the character could have been a great moment for Middle Eastern representation.

It’s not like Pamuk is going to come back in the Downton Abbey movie, so I’m not expecting anything great in the way of representation of any type. If Fellowes can’t bear to reprimand Mary for being a butt, then I doubt he’d bring in refreshing racial diversity or treat Thomas with any respect. But there are lessons we can learn from Pamuk and his characterization.

1) Pamuk’s death serves no purpose, therefore his character might not have even been warranted.

2) Pamuk’s characterization as a sly racial stereotype can give writers an instance of what not to do when creating layered Middle Eastern characters, even characters that only show up for one episode.

3) If you have to kill off a character, don’t stuff them in a broom closet.

Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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Adam Beach calls for “Yellowstone” boycott over Kelsey Asbille cast as Native character

Usually, POC lovers of media are quick to call out moments of whitewashing. However, now comes the time when we have to police how POC actors take roles from other POC.

Adam Beach, one of the most prominent Native actors in Hollywood, is calling on people to boycott the Paramount Network’s first scripted series, Yellowstone. The show, starring Kevin Costner, focuses on Costner’s character John Dutton, who owns the biggest contiguous ranch in the country. The ranch under attack by Yellowstone National Park itself, as well as land developers and a nearby Native American reservation who, I’m assuming, see it as a threat to their way of life since the rest of the synopsis, according to Coming Soon, reads thusly:

“It is an intense study of a violent world far from media scrutiny—where land grabs make developers billions, and politicians are bought and sold by the world’s largest oil and lumber corporations. Where drinking water poisoned by fracking wells and unsolved murders are not news: they are a consequence of living in the new frontier. It is the best and worst of America seen through the eyes of a family that represents both.”

The controversy comes in with the casting of Kelsey Asbille, formerly known as Kelsey Chow, as the Native American character Monica. Asbille is half Chinese, according to Wikipedia. As Clevver writes, “the 25-year-old actress is half-white/half-Taiwanese ‘with some Cherokee ancestry.’ Others state that she was born to a ‘Chinese-Taiwanese father and a mother of English and Cherokee descent.’” Wikipedia’s entry on Asbille states nothing about any Cherokee ancestry. At the end of the day, there seems to be a question surrounding her possible Native American ancestry.

This isn’t the first time she’s been cast as a Native American, which is troubling, since her recent role before Yellowstone, a Native American character named Natalie in the acclaimed film Wind River, is probably what allowed her to secure this Yellowstone role.

According to Clevver, Beach wrote on Instagram that the Yellowstone casting was “failure in diversity.”

“I’m asking my Native Actors to stay away from this project. ‘Yellowstone’ is telling the world that there are no Native actresses capable of leading a TV show. Unless your great-great grandparents are Cherokee,” he wrote.

“I speak on behalf of all my woman Natives who work so hard to get noticed and they wake up to this,” he wrote.

#hollywooddiversity #diversityinfilm #integrity #yellowstone

A post shared by adam beach (@adamrbeach) on

Will more speak out against Asbille’s casting? We’ll see what happens as Yellowstone ramps up.

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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: Henry Zaga (Reportedly) as Sunspot in “X-Men: New Mutants”

(left) Sunspot, (right) Henry Zaga (side-by-side from Latinx Geeks)

Another day, another whitewashing controversy in Hollywood, the land that never learns its lesson. This time, erasure controversy surrounds the newest in the X-Men film franchise, X-Men: New Mutants.

According to Comicbook.com via Entertainment Weekly, Brazilian actor Henry Zaga has been reportedly been cast as Sunspot (aka Roberto da Costa), a mutant who absorbs the sun’s energy and uses it to increase his own physical abilities as well as to blast enemies and fly. Zaga, who is best known from Teen Wolf and more recently 13 Reasons Why, might be Brazilian like Sunspot, but he’s not Afro-Brazilian. Enter the controversy.

In a Medium post written by Latinx Geeks, the online community explains why racial identity is so important for a character like Sunspot. His Afro-Latinx identity is a central part of his storyline, including the moment when he discovers his powers.

“Sunspot’s powers first manifested during a soccer game where a rival team member hurled racial insults at him calling Roberto a ‘halfbreed,'” they write.  “This was due to the fact that Roberto’s father, Emmanuel da Costa, is Afro-Brazilian and his mother, Nina da Costa, is a white Brazilian.”

“…Henry Zaga, a white Brazilian actor, being cast to play Roberto da Costa is whitewashing pure and simple,” they wrote. “Sunspot’s Afro-Brazilian identity is directly tied to his very origin and the manifestation of his mutant powers. To deny his race is to deny who he is as a mutant, superhero, and as a person; the son of a black man and a white woman.”

Zaga’s casting speaks to the continued ignorance in Hollywood when it comes to casting characters to correctly reflect their ethnicity and background. Just because Zaga is Brazilian doesn’t mean he’s the correct choice for a role such as Sunspot.

Hollywood tends to either miscast characters completely (such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell) or it takes the “good enough” casting method, such as many of the roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, in which Chinese actresses were playing Japanese roles, or having actors who make a living off of being racially ambiguous play everything from Mexican to Native American. The latter seems to be happening with Zaga and Sunspot. The idea is that Zaga’s Brazilian, so that’s “good enough” for him to play Sunspot. Not accurate.

This is not even taking into account the type of privilege Zaga has as a white actor and, as Hollywood would classify him, an “white ethnic” actor. As a white actor, Zaga could audition for–and land– as many leading roles as he wants. As a “white ethnic” actor, he can take not only traditionally white roles, but also those that call for non-white roles as well, such as Sunspot. Another example of this is Zach McGowan, a white actor who, because of his slightly darker “surfer boy” look, has been cast to play native Hawaiian historical figure Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau.

Once again, fans of beloved characters are waiting on Hollywood to give them accuracy when bringing characters from the page to the screen. Sadly, it seems like Sunspot is yet another casualty of whitewashing.

Let’s focus on the positives of “Iron Fist,” Rosario Dawson, Jessica Henwick and Lewis Tan

Marvel Entertainment, Lewis Tan IMDB

We could talk all day about Finn Jones and the albatross around his neck that is Iron Fist.

Starting out the gate, Marvel’s Iron Fist, which will premiere on Netflix March 17,  has a 14 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Marvel fanboys might be in a tizzy about this, but this is really a blessing in disguise. Everything remained at a semi-standstill as everyone waited for the first reviews of Iron Fist to roll out. Now that they have, the show is officially Marvel’s first Netflix blemish and, hopefully, the show finally teaches the lesson Marvel failed to learn with Doctor Strange, which also exploited Asian themes while whitewashing the Ancient One.

Iron Fist has been a problem from the get-go, with fans urging Marvel to make Danny Rand, originally a white comic book character existing in an intensely problematic and stereotype-filled Asian world, an Asian man. That way, at least some of the story could seem a little more pleasing to the 21st century palette (of course, it would have also helped if the story was updated as well).

But, Marvel, wanting to please who they think are their core audience—white males—decided to forego any attempt to update the series and cast Finn Jones as Danny Rand. The show only sunk from there.

Here’s what the critics thought of Iron Fist.

“For viewers who’ve grown accustomed to the genre-defying tales of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Iron Fist feels like a paint-by- numbers project, trying to check the right boxes in time for The Defenders. And that’s just not good enough, not anymore.”—Trent Moore, Paste Magazine

Marvel’s Iron Fist isn’t just the wimpiest punch ever thrown by the world’s mightiest superhero factory. The new Netflix binge swings and misses so bad that it spins itself around and slaps itself silly with a weirdly flaccid hand.—Jeff Hensen, Entertainment Weekly

It may have seemed fine to crank out another Marvel Netflix show that feels like the brand’s past outings, but the critical drubbing that Iron Fist has received is in no small part due to the fact that it’s so stale and unoriginal.—Abraham Riesman, Vulture

What’s also great is that many of the articles have stated how the show’s whitewashing hurt the show as much as the staleness of the story.

“[L]et me be clear: Iron Fist’s problems with its portrayal of Asian cultures and Asian-Americans are embedded throughout every episode. It’s just that its problems with delivering exposition, crafting consistent characters, and even basic dialogue writing run right alongside.

Sure, this is a show where a white male character explains how to punch to an Asian-American, female head of her own dojo, in her own dojo — wait, let me be painfully specific. A white male character explains his martial art — which was made up by white men in the 1970s as a nonspecifically Asian but definitionally more powerful technique than those invented by actual Asian cultures — to an Asian-American, female expert in actual martial arts developed by actual Asian cultures.” —Susana Polo, Polygon

Jones also isn’t doing himself any favors with some of what he’s saying to the press after the blow-up of Iron Fist.

Here’s just a smattering of some of Jones’ various comments:

“I think the world has changed a lot since we were filming that television show,’ he said. ‘I’m playing a white American billionaire superhero, at a time when the white American billionaire archetype is public enemy number one, especially in the U.S. …We filmed the show way before Trump’s election, and I think it’s very interesting to see how that perception, now that Trump’s in power, how it makes it very difficult to root for someone coming from white privilege, when that archetype is public enemy number one.” —Jones at RadioTimes

“Well, I think there’s multiple factors. What I will say is these shows are not made for critics, they are first and foremost made for the fans. I also think some of the reviews we saw were seeing the show through a very specific lens, and I think when the fans of the Marvel Netflix world and fans of the comic books view the show through the lens of just wanting to enjoy a superhero show, then they will really enjoy what they see. I think it’s a fantastic show which is really fun and I think it stands up there with the other Defenders’ shows without a doubt.”—Jones at Metro UK

You can read tons more stuff at Pajiba, where they’ve packaged everything in an article aptly titled “How to Handle Criticism of Your Acting Role Without Being a Sh*t Weasel.”

Let’s also not forget how Jones ran away from Twitter after Geeks of Color’s Asyiqin Haron tweeted him about his ironic retweet of Riz Ahmed’s talk about diversity and representation in media.

Haron told MCU Exchange:

“I just thought it was ironic. Finn never directly talked about #AAIronFist and when he tweeted that, it didn’t sit well with me. I never expected a reply from him. Maybe a reply from some of his fans but not from him. It was unexpected. He’s a famous actor. He could’ve easily ignored my comment. Most famous people do that with criticism. I was doing my own thing until someone told me he replied to my comment. …I was trying to get him to understand why an Asian Iron Fist is so important to us. He talks about being progressive but throughout the conversation it felt like he was deflecting the points I was trying to make. I have no hostility towards him. I was being respectful and calm about it. I just feel upset that he just deactivated his account after saying this:
[The tweet: “…I appreciate you reaching out, to bridge these gaps in our society, communication is and understanding is the key.”]

…which he deleted from his Twitter.”

Again, like I said, we could talk all day about poor Finn Jones. (I mean “poor” relatively; I know he’s not hurting for money and I also know he’s bringing a lot of this on himself; I just feel bad when people put themselves out there when they don’t need to.)

But let’s focus on the positive aspects of the show, Marvel newcomers Jessica Henwick, who plays Colleen Wing, and Lewis Tan, who plays Zhou Cheng, Iron Fist’s ultimate nemesis.

Marvel Entertainment

So far, Henwick and Dawson have been one of the critics’ favorites, despite the horrors of the rest of the show.

“…[I]f it were a series without these two women [Henwick and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple], to riff off this International Women’s Day, Iron Fist wouldn’t pack much of a punch. It is all Henwick and Dawson’s dynamic –individually and together–as ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ dojo-running Colleen Wing and ex-nurse Claire Temple, respectively, that pumps the irregular heart of the 13-episode first season from showrunner Scott Buck.”—Dominic Patten, Deadline

In fact, most people are only watching Iron Fist to support these two women.

Marvel Entertainment

The other person many folks are watching it for: Lewis Tan. He’s told the Black Girl Nerds podcast about how he actually auditioned for the Danny Rand role and got close to the end until they did a switcheroo on him and gave the role to Jones, who can’t fight (unlike Tan, who has been fighting all his life thanks to his dad, who also did stuntwork and acting roles in Hollywood films).

Lewis Tan training with a katana (IMDB)

He’s also been an outspoken voice for AAPI equality in entertainment, as well as a staunch supporter of intersectionality. Because of his work on and off-screen he’s got legions of fans.

Lewis Tan and Rosario Dawson on the set of “Iron Fist.” IMDB

So while the temptation to miss Iron Fist might be great, perhaps you’ll support the man and women who need your support the most? Who knows–perhaps if we show Marvel just how much we love these characters, they’ll give us the spin-offs of our dreams. (Folks already want a “Daughters of the Dragon” spin-off featuring Wing and Misty Knight.)

What do you think about Iron Fist? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Mediaversity Reviews: “The Great Wall”

“Matt Damon swoops down on a balloon and saves her with my favorite line of the movie, “And here I am,” with all the non sequitur his very presence in this entire film brings.”

Title: The Great Wall (2017)
Director: Yimou Zhang 👨🏻🇨🇳
Writers: Carlos Bernard 👨🏼🇺🇸, Doug Miro  👨🏼🇺🇸, Tony Gilroy  👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 1.5/5
Jesus, this movie is bad. It’s so bad that it does a 180 and starts to become hilarious, in the vein of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or pulpy, IDGAF films like Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado. So I gave it a half point for accidental comedy and shiny costumes.

Gender: 4/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
One name: Jing Tian. She was amazing. I want an entire film with just her being a BAMF. I wish she got to fight more. One of the most anti-climactic scenes involves mounting tension as she finds herself surrounded by aliens. I thought a brilliantly-choreographed brawl was ramping up, as per Yimou Zhang’s previous films Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but instead Matt Damon swoops down on a balloon and saves her with my favorite line of the movie, “And here I am,” with all the non sequitur his very presence in this entire film brings. The meta!! Oh god, I laughed so hard.

Beyond Jing Tian, though, any semblance of feminism drops off a cliff. Literally, the other women are these weird lady killers who jump off giant fans and bounce on strings, poking at aliens with oversized toothpicks. It’s hilarious, but hardly empowering.

Race: 2/5
Yes, this is a White Savior movie. Asian soldiers literally say things like “thank you for saving my life” to Matt Damon. So if you balk at understanding that this is a textbook White Savior film, you need to get off this train and board the next; I have more interesting things to delve into like the historical and modern contexts of this controversy.

A quick note to Matt Damon’s whining that this is a fantasy film: yes, it’s a fantasy film. We’re not idiots, we’re not annoyed because we think Irish people (or whatever that accent was) shouldn’t be in fictional China fighting aliens together. We’re annoyed about what isn’t fictional: decades of Asian actors being deleted from their own stories via:

  • White actors in Asian roles (see: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, cast as “Major” for the role of “Major Motoko Kusanagi”)
  • Erasure of Asian roles in order to cast white actors (see: Tilda Swinton’s Celtic character in Doctor Strange, originally Tibetan in the comic)
  • Yellow-face (see: Emma Stone in Aloha, playing a half-Asian).

Keep in mind, I only had to think back 2 years to pull up those gems. Now, imagine decades of erasure, and then tell me people of color should take a chill pill with The Great Wall.

Where the film does deserve some lenience is in considering the real-life context of this film. Although the writers were all white men, with illustrious whitewashed films such as The Last Samurai or Prince of Persia under their belts, the director of The Great Wall is about as Chinese as you can get: Yimou Zhang is a beloved director in his country and was even tapped by the government to choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics. I find it more sad than offensive that the Chinese think Matt Damon’s clumsy injection would endear The Great Wall to Western audiences. I appreciate their risk-taking, as producers experiment with different ways of appealing to China’s increasing market share; however, I can only hope that in the future, film studios find a more elegant way of doing so.

Finally, also in the “Good” category, the film is fit-to-bursting with Asian actors. I am always going to be in favor of something that gives non-white actors the chance to be seen by a large audience, and to get paid for their work.

LGBTQ: N/A
No representation but too short a program to ding them for it.

Mediaversity Grade: D 2.5/5
Jing Tian slays in the Gender category and I want to watch her anime-character face in everything. Race is not as bad as the trailers make it out to be, especially when considering a Chinese director and mixed group of executive producers were involved in the casting of a white lead. But once you stop making excuses for it The Great Wall is about as literal to the White Savior trope as you can get.

Between bouts of coma-inducing expository about black powder, The Great Wall strings together fun, war-faring music videos set to cool costumes and silly, CGI carnage. Several elements such as Matt Damon’s pseudo-Irish accent, his saving of Asian after Asian, or the breakout roles of magnets and balloons in this film, all combined into one of the funniest things I’ve watched in awhile. I’m not going to sugarcoat it though, the source of much of my incredulous laughter came from a gut-deep place of absurdity as I watched Chinese men get erased, over and over again, both physically on screen by bombs, or by the lifelong media narrative that tells us that at best, Asian guys can be cool and strong but ultimately, it takes a white man to outsmart the enemy. #ThankYouMattDamon

“Tyrant”: The Self-Hatred and Whitewashing of Bassam

Bassam from Season Two of "Tyrant." (FX)
Bassam from Season Two of “Tyrant.” (FX)

One of the most interesting things to come out of the three-season run of Tyrant was the handling of the character of Bassam. Bassam has been a character that has been an interesting component of my TV criticism of Tyrant. In fact, calling him “interesting” is an understatement and a euphemism. I’ll quote what I wrote about him for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog in the very first episode of the very first season:

First, there is a white British actor (Adam Rayner) playing a Middle Eastern character. Did his casting alter the casting of Barry’s mother, Amira (Alice Maud Krige), so there could be some kind of continuity and for the show to possibly avoid accusations of whitewashing? Even so, the fact that there is a non-Middle Eastern actor playing the savior-type role opposite an actual Middle Eastern actor (Ashraf Barhom) playing the devil in a suit [Jamal] is quite troubling.

As you can see, I’ve always had a problem with Bassam being played by a white actor. The idea that a show set in the Middle East needed a white face to market to American audiences is ludicrous. It’s the classic Hollywood trope of having a white actor play Detective Chan or Othello; for some reason, studio heads think that the majority of white Americans won’t be able to identify with someone who doesn’t look like them. It doesn’t give the viewing public any credit for their own smarts, and it doesn’t give POC actors any credit for actually having acting talent as well as the ability to connect with audiences, no matter what the audience might look like. If white actors are expected to have the ability to connect with white and non-white audiences, then POC actors should be given that same chance.

Tyrant buttressed the whitewashing with Jamal, who is played by Israeli-Arab actor Ashraf Barhom. How come Barhom, who is of the region, tasked to play the “bad Arab” guy, while Rayner, who is not only white but has no cultural ties to the Middle East, gets to play the “good Arab” brother? To go back to Hollywood tropes, it’s the classic tale of having the white lead play against aggressive, sexually deviant, villainous “natives.” For instance, when Tarzan has to fight tribes of cannibals, or when the white lead has to defeat the Dragon Lady. This trope is even as recent as 2015’s No Escape, in which Owen Wilson and his family have to escape the terrorizing Asian natives in an unspecified Pacific island nation.

Now, none of this is to say that Barhom didn’t play the shiznit out of his role. Indeed, despite Jamal’s villainy, he still imbued the right amount of humanity for Jamal to be seen, at times, as a tragic figure who’s biggest enemy is himself. But that portrayal of Jamal is completely due to Barhom’s tremendous acting talent. Otherwise, Jamal would have been a one-note monster, instead of a complicated one.

Related: Monique’s Tyrant recaps for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog 

Talking about Jamal, though, is a digression from the topic at hand, which is Bassam’s self-hatred. The reason I state Bassam has self-hatred is due in part due to the fact that he’s played by a white actor. To quote myself in a previous Tyrant article:

To me, Rayner’s Bassam hints at something unsavory that seems to be true to the character; Bassam has a large level of self-hate. Not just for his own actions, but for his culture. Sure, he comes from a line of despots. But he can’t separate the actions of his family from the overall culture of his home and the citizens that make up his home. He strikes me just as what he looks like; a Middle Eastern man who passes for white so he can get the benefits of living in America, and who lives in America so long that he removes himself from his home, his former identity, and his former actions. But, with Rayner’s Bassam taking this tone, there are new questions. Is this the tone the creator(s) wanted for Bassam in the first place? Does this tone make him less sympathetic? Would critics like me even see this side of Bassam if he was cast using an actual Middle Eastern actor (because Middle Eastern people come in all shades)? I don’t know. Such is the case with a complicated scenario of Rayner as Bassam.

The way Rayner has played Bassam (and the way he has been written) has been utterly fascinating to me and, if it was handled more adeptly at the beginning, could have told a very nuanced tale of a man who finds himself on an unwilling journey to come to terms with his culture and his ethnicity.

Shaun Lau, one of the contributors to my currently-evolving series #RepresentYourStory, wrote about his own battles of overcoming internalized self-hate. His story sounds a lot like what Bassam’s might have been; feeling like you’d rather be accepted by the Westernized (i.e. white) gaze than your own culture, wanting to escape and become something more than what you felt you were. The hard lesson that Lau wrote about was coming to terms with his own thinking patterns, taking the time to actively unlearn what he’d been told by society, and ultimately becoming a better, more well-rounded person because of it.

Related: #RepresentYourStory

It seems like Bassam would have to do some of this introspection himself; he has rejected his culture, his heritage, and even his name, choosing to go by “Barry” in America. He marries into whiteness, has kids who can be accepted into whiteness, and for all anyone knows is a coded-white individual in American society with a medical practice. He was able to cross over just like how he wanted. However, he still carried fear and resentment of his own culture, and this resentment comes out either in outright rejection of Abuddin, violence, or wanting to take Abuddin from its roots and transplanting the centuries-old culture into something Bassam would find palatable while he’s interim President.

Bassam’s self hate manifested itself into a Western-centric dictatorship, promising to lead Abuddin from the ties of the past and into a more, supposedly “structurally-sound” future. But Bassam’s future is basically just installing what he believes to be Western-only ideals, like democracy and free elections. However, as Leila herself told him toward the end of the first season, he can’t truly believe that no one in the Middle East has never heard of democracy before he came back from America. In fact, there are several Middle Eastern countries who engage in democracy, so yes, democracy existed in the Middle East long before Bassam decided to showcase it as a newfangled approach. Bassam’s belief about democracy being only a Western thing is just one of the ways in which Bassam’s idolizing of America could be a character beat worth investigating, but it becomes increasingly problematic since it’s a white actor playing the character. What could be seen as a Middle Eastern character fetishizing America because of his own internal self-acceptance issues becomes American propaganda due to a white actor playing the role. In short, Bassam comes out look more like the “evangelized native” trope (which could also be considered a type of “Uncle Tom” trope) than a conflicted man trying to find acceptance in a new cultural (and even racial) identity.

The throughline of Bassam’s internalized racism was abjectly clear in his actions after Emma’s death, which pushed both him and his wife Molly over the edge into Islamophobia.  Even when he’s lording over his own people in the country’s highest office, Bassam can’t shake the idea that the people—his people—aren’t a monolith. Instead, especially after the death of his daughter at the hands of terrorists, he decides to lump all of Abuddin and neighboring countries under the same “terrorist” label instead of trying to secure his people from terrorist acts due to a love of country and its people. The irony is that he acts just as much like a terrorist as the actual terrorists, and it stems from his own self-hate.

What is fascinating, though, is that Bassam’s discomfort with his culture seemed to abate a little bit after Jamal leaves him in the desert to die. During Season 2, Bassam is forced to come to terms with himself, his rejection of Islam, and the hurt of the people wasting away under Jamal’s regime. He picks up the habit of prayer again, gets back in touch with the common man when he’s a guest at Daliyah’s then-husband’s house, and eventually, becomes the leader of the rebellion. It was during this time that Bassam seemed to be the most at-home within himself. He was fighting for his people’s well-being, he was praying with them, and he was living for them. When Bassam acquires the presidency, though, his old self-hating habits come back, and he’s once again coding himself under whiteness, disassociating himself from the people he grew to love.

Bassam’s dis-ease with himself and his culture is something that should be analyzed and thought about upon any repeat viewings of the series. However, Bassam’s story could have been even more adeptly told if Bassam was played by a Middle Eastern actor from the beginning. A Middle Eastern actor could have brought his own experiences and the experiences of people he knows to the role of Bassam, making Bassam’s plight to self-acceptance even more truthful to real life. This kind of nuance would have spoken volumes, and it would have made Bassam possibly one of the few Middle Eastern characters on TV who is a fully-realized character.

However, having the role whitewashed takes away any truthfulness a viewer could parse from it. Currently, all Bassam ever became was a big “What if?” character. What if he was portrayed in more truthful manner? What if his storyline was fully fleshed-out from the beginning? What could Bassam had been if there was much more consideration given to his characterization and his motives, as well as how his culture affects him?

Possibly the best allegorical character for Bassam is Robert Downey Jr.’s character from 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, which is somehow both an underrated and laser-precise skewering of Hollywood culture. Kirk is a white Australia actor, yet he’s known for “method acting,” including acting as a black man in the fictional Vietnam War-era metafilm in the movie. The most famous line from the film comes from Kirk, saying, “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” This is precisely who Bassam is. He’s a white British man playing a Middle Eastern man disguised as a white American man, who then decides to go back home to become a dictator of a people whom he doesn’t know. If Kirk Lazarus is supposed to be absurd on purpose, then Bassam is absurd unintentionally. Bassam is a character who shouldn’t have been given the Kirk Lazarus treatment.

What do you think about Bassam’s self-hate issues? How would you have written Bassam? Give your opinions in the comments section below!