With summer slowly rolling in, movies are taking their place at the center of public consciousness. With this in mind, two upcoming films have recently caused public outcry in regards to their casts. The upcoming adaptations of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” have come under scrutiny and awakened discussions of “whitewashing” and racial inequality in major studio films. Yet, however heinous these choices may be, I don’t believe they were made for purely racial reasons.
Whitewashing, for those unaware, refers to the alleged tendency of Hollywood directors to cast white actors and actresses in the roles of characters who were non-white in their respective source material. Both “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” involve characters originally of Asian origin being played by white actresses.
In the upcoming adaptation of the fan-favorite anime “Ghost in the Shell,” Scarlett Johansson is slated to play protagonist Motoko Kusanagi. Within the fiction of the original anime, Kusanagi is a cyborg who can transfer her mind between bodies, and so some argue she could well have chosen a Caucasian body.
However, “Ghost in the Shell” is a story which takes place in a dystopian, cyberpunk Japan, and it goes without saying Kusanagi was intended to be Japanese. To make matters worse, Screen Crush, a movie news website, reported last Friday on a rumor that Paramount studios tried using computer-generated graphics and makeup effects to make Johansson look “more Asian.”
This bit of gossip put many fence-sitting supporters of Johansson over the edge, with this supposed backward view of race being too reprehensible and ignorant to even fathom. Paramount denied the allegations, but the damage has likely been done.
The other film which has been put under a racial microscope is Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Doctor Strange,” which is considerably further into its development than “Ghost in the Shell.”
The whitewashed character is known as The Ancient One, Doctor Strange’s mentor and teacher of the mystic arts. Originally, The Ancient One was an old, withered male Tibetan monk who was later revealed to be a nigh-immortal manifestation of Earth’s magic.
Far fewer people are upset about this choice for a multitude of reasons. As mentioned above, The Ancient One is a magical being, not something or someone people would traditionally assign a race to. Not only this, but the character has been gender-swapped and is now being played by Tilda Swinton. Adding female representation into positions of power is something dedicated movie-goers seem to like, as demonstrated most recently by critical acclaim for Charlize Theron’s role in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
I honestly believe these changes weren’t made to exclude Asians or any other race or ethnicity. From the “Doctor Strange” trailer, released on YouTube earlier this month, it looks like Swinton was cast for her acting chops and not simply because she is European.
One could argue the same thing about Johansson’s casting in “Ghost in the Shell,” yet the film’s production crew seems much more reliant on the actress’s name recognition than staying true to character depiction. Paramount Pictures may have trouble marketing “Ghost in the Shell,” as the vast majority of people have never heard of it. In this way, casting a well-known actress in this role may be a smart move profit-wise.
Marvel Studios already succeeds at capitalizing on obscure stories due to studio reputation alone. Consider 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in which a previously niche property became an extremely profitable franchise all because it was a Marvel film. In this way, “Doctor Strange” did not need to pander to audiences in its casting choices in the same way “Ghost in the Shell” appears to be doing. Paramount cast Johansson as Kusanagi not to erase the character’s Asian identity, but to draw in fans of sci-fi action thrillers starring Johansson.
Whitewashing is prevalent in movie casting, and just once is one time too many. Kusanagi could have been played by a lesser-known Japanese actress, but Paramount most likely didn’t want to risk losing box office sales over this decision. Max Landis, director of “Chronicle” and son of “Blues Brothers” director John Landis, even said as much in a video descriptively titled, “If You’re Mad about ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ You Don’t Know how the Movie Industry
It’s clear these casting decisions weren’t motivated by something horrible like racism, but were driven by something more understandable: Money.