A while ago, it was announced that Natalie Portman would be playing the Biologist, the lead character in Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. The story involves a bureaucratic government agency, the Southern Reach, and its failed attempts to investigate Area X, a mysterious place where the laws of reality don’t exactly work.
A while later, it was announced that Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Oscar Isaac would also be in it. This was celebrated by lots of people. After all, isn’t this what we want? A well-rounded mix of actors of different races, all of considerable talent. Yet the casting isn’t as progressive as it looks.
See, in the books, the Biologist is of Asian descent. This is how she is described by Control, the protagonist of the second book.
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.”
We don’t know how “Asian” she is, or ethnicity she exactly is. After all, Asia is massive, and encompasses a multitude of countries. China, India, Pakistan, Iran, etc. And of course there’s still many arguments and many sides of what is a part of “Asia.” But when authors, particularly white authors, describe a character as Asian, we usually mean East Asian (Japan, China, Korea, etc.). Not white Israeli, which is what Natalie Portman is. Does Natalie Portman meet the standards for the Biologist’s heritage? Sure, but only in the most technical sense. Both her parents are of European ancestry. So yes, she is Asian, but only because she was born in a country that has been designated as so.
You could argue that the Biologist is of mixed Asian heritage and white-passing, but if a character is able to look at her and recognize her Asian heritage, then she’s probably not. She is canonically mixed race, but she’s not white-passing. And even if she was, there are plenty of mixed-race Asian actresses. Elodie Yung, Phillipa Soo, Olivia Munn, Moon Bloodgood, and Kristin Kreuk are just a few good examples of mixed-race Asian actresses who can pass as white. There’s no reason to cast a white actor as a white-passing character, when mixed actors already exist. Natalie Portman would be absolutely fine without this role. Many actresses of color wouldn’t.
The whitewashing doesn’t end there, though. Another major character, whose perspective the story is also told from, is the Psychologist. In the second book, Authority, it is directly stated that the Psychologist had a white father and Native American mother. Yet Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress of Austrian and Russian descent, was cast as her. As far as we know, she has no Native American ancestry. Yet here she is, playing a character who is explicitly Native American.
Additionally, there is Control. Control is of white and Central American descent. He is not white, and even discusses the racism he receives because of it. He’s referred to as a “spic” (a slur for Latino people) by a white coworker. He mentions how there are some bars you can’t go to unless you’re very, very white-passing. His identity as Latino is important, and it is not simply a matter of interpretation. It is there in the story, directly stated.
Alex Garland cast Oscar Isaac, who is Guatemalan and Cuban, in the film. But Control doesn’t show up in the first book. He’s not even mentioned in it. So naturally, the assumption is that he’s playing the husband of the Biologist. The Biologist’s husband only shows up in flashbacks, and is dead before the story even begins. While he is an important part of the Biologist’s story, he is inarguably a minor character.
And this is the problem with the casting of Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson as well. Both are incredibly talented actresses, yet they have been cast as the Surveyor and the Anthropologist. Both are minor characters, and spoiler alert, the Anthropologist dies early on in the story and barely even speaks. The Surveyor dies later and mostly acts as an obstacle to the Biologist.
This isn’t diversity. This is meeting a quota.
You can surround your white main characters by people of color and call it diversity, but is it really? Diversity is such a buzzword these days. We talk about it all the time, and as it gets discussed more and more, white writers have seen it not as something to actually strive for, but as an opportunity. The 100 was praised for its diverse cast, yet it has treated both its actors and characters of color terribly. It focuses on the white protagonists and their journeys, while using people of color as props and killing them off or torturing them for shock value. But technically, it is still diverse. Sense8, another show hailed as diverse, utilizes many racist and stereotypical tropes for its characters of color, while focusing the narratives on its white characters. Sleepy Hollow marketed itself with its diverse cast, including a black woman as the main character, yet it continued to focus on its white characters until the main actress actually quit due to the lack of development and screen time for her own character. But again, it is still diverse.
Maybe it’s time that we stop focusing on diversity, because obviously we’re missing the point. Diversity is not having a certain amount of people of color in your cast. Diversity doesn’t matter if the story is still primarily about white people.
Storytelling is an exercise in empathy. When we read or watch something, we are required to empathize with whomever the story is told through, whoever they may be. Experiencing a story from a character’s perspective forces us to humanize them and understand who they are, even if they aren’t good people or we don’t like them. It allows us to see the world in a different way. So when we make our casts “diverse” yet still focus on white people, we’re not actually making any changes or really challenging ourselves to do better. We aren’t being progressive. We’re just turning a very real issue into a hollow trend to be marketed and used.
This is the problem with the cast of Annihilation. This is the same problem with Sense8, with Sleepy Hollow, The 100, and countless other shows and movies. They are diverse, but they’re no different than anything with a predominantly white cast. They are still focused on the lives and narratives of white people. They don’t force us to empathize or identify with people of color, they just use them as props. Until we start actually focusing on people of color and not just dehumanizing them in a subtler manner, we won’t make any changes.