The Hollywood “Whitewashing” Debate is a Liiiiittle Racist
Americans aren’t the only people watching movies, you know.
Have you ever been to Asia? Most film and culture critics who write about the current state of Pop-America haven’t. I don’t mean backpacking through Thailand a la Leo in The Beach or a yoga retreat in Bali, but real extended time — weeks; months, maybe — in a city in modern Asia with a real movie theater. It has to be enough time to really understand the culture, what people do, and what their routines are like; enough time to spend consecutive nights and weekends in the same café in the same mall, perhaps the only one for a hundred and fifty kilometers (if you don’t know how far that is in miles, this is probably about you).
Asia is a big place. About a third of the world’s population lives in our most rapidly-developing economies, and over the last twenty years we’ve seen unprecedented growth in the middle class, and iddle-class Asians like to spend money, too. I see them at the mall on weekends — just try to get a seat at a table in the food court in the VINCOM Mall in Đà Nẵng at 7 on a Sunday night — and I waited in line with many of them for weekday matinees of Logan; Power Rangers; even Get Out (weeks after it’s American debut). Films in Asia are marketed differently; distributed differently, but none of that is relevant, because duh. What matters is that movies are consumed differently in Asia than the States, yet film critics who haven’t spent significant time abroad seem loathe to consider the rest of the world in their idea of what a film should be, and though it may not be blatantly racist, it’s sure as hell extremely ignorant.
This week, Ghost In The Shell dropped in theaters around the world, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role kept the ball rolling on a Hollywood “whitewashing” conversation that has been bubbling up and sometimes boiling over in different incarnations for the last few years. It goes back further, but we’ve recently gotten extra sensitive about it’s symbolism of institutional discrimination since social media has become ubiquitous. From Emma Stone’s Asian-Hawaiian in Aloha (questionable) to Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange (horrific and egregious) to an absurd debate about Netflix’s Iron Fist (the original character in the comics was a white guy, so the debate is more about a missed opportunity than actual whitewashing), the PC-Police are sniffing out anything that even resembles a racially-insensitive miscasting. Piggybacking on a content stream with proven pay-per-click success is an easy way to generate digital revenue, and “whitewash” seems to be the buzzword of the moment as consumers of media try to find anything to distract themselves from reality. But these debates (most of them; not defending Swinton because, well, that entire movie is indefensible) are missing one extremely salient point that a film critic with little perspective on foreign consumption of western media would probably miss:
There are a shitload of Asian consumers, way more than there are American moviegoers, and they want American movie stars in their movies.
Remember The Great Wall, that Matt Damon ancient-china demon-slayer that nobody in America seemed to understand? Oh, you don’t? Well, it did $330 million worldwide ($45 million domestically), on a $150 million budget, yet carries a meek 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of that profit came from the Chinese, who have developed quite a taste for the highest quality American film stars over the past decade. Matt Damon — the brilliant, impossibly perfect Matt Damon — saw the writing on the (Great?) wall and attached his name to something that most American stars wouldn’t touch with an orc-killing longsword, mostly because he’s not an ignorant clown living in a pop culture bubble where only one country has media relevance. No, Damon buoyed a Chinese film based on Chinese culture with distinctly Chinese sensibilities, one that wouldn’t have even gotten an American release had it not been for his star quality, and despite almost universal shellacking by American critics, the film more than doubled its money.
Plenty of American flops make their money back on the global market, yet it’s often attributed to a simple numbers-game. There aren’t many people seeing movies in theaters anymore, less so as DVD-release periods have been moved up to try to make money back quicker, and distribution models evolve to fill new niches in the streaming ecosystem. People might see one or two films in a year, statistically most often the summer or Christmas blockbuster. Looking at a population map of the world will suggest that more people abroad simply equals more tickets sold, so the domestic v. global box office numbers seem easily attributed to simple population demographics.
But what if that’s not the whole story? What if the new Asian middle class — people with discretionary income and a growing appetite for western brands (see: iPhone sales) — is driven to the same things we want in the U.S., not out of scarcity, or a desire for anything they can get their hands on, but an actual luxury of choice and recreational freedom and a desire for relatable storytelling?
If you look at the numbers for the Chinese market, they are legitimately absurd. Furious 7 is the highest grossing American film in Chinese history, with a staggering $350m at the box office in China alone. Fate of the Furious releases next week globally, and the marketing campaigns around Vietnam, where I’m living for the month, are almost comical. It’s very literally everywhere, and its a safe bet it will surpass F7. The series has followed a clear upward trend in gross revenue for 15+ years, with the exception of the franchise-adjacent Tokyo Drift which slumped a bit after 2 Fast 2 Furious (RIP Paul). The last two Furious films have doubled the global revenue of their prequels, probably because Universal Studios, the production outfit for the franchise since 2001, figured out that the Universe is bigger than the U.S. Domestic Market. Other mediocre-to-bad American films to dominate in China include Jurassic World ($207m, 59% on Metacritic), Transformers: Age of Extinction ($287m, 32%), Warcraft ($213m. 32%) and Zootopia (Ok, you got me. That one is good).
The point is that a “bad” movie in America is criticized and evaluated through just one specific prism of taste and expectation, but the world is getting smaller, the Asian middle class is growing at a clip not seen since post-WW2 America, and filmmakers are not idiots. To an American consumer, especially a mainstream American film critic, casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Matoko Kusanagi seems blatantly offensive; an attempt to woo American moviegoers into an overpriced theater seat by replacing a minority character with a cleanly-scrubbed bodysuit-wearing Mira Killian. But this explanation is clearly the first, most obvious one, and Occam’s Razor sometimes doesn’t apply to global economics. Just like a Matt Damon billing turned an admittedly-weak film into a global juggernaut, billing Johansson as the lead in a beloved Manga puts asses in seats. Those seats just might be in a different place than an American film critic expects. Asian markets, whether Japan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, or Thailand, have movie theaters too. Asian moviegoers want different things from movies than pretentious American film critics. Did you think about that before you vomited up a 3000-word hit piece on institutional racism in modern film? Big dumb action might seem campy among the rich green jade of film twitter, but outside the American cultural bubble filmmakers see rich green dollar signs instead.
A film like “Ghost In The Shell” gets an American release because it’s American-made, with an American-lead, but filmmakers and distributors understand the economics of media outside the confines of US Customs and Immigration. They thought about it, long and hard, and made a strategic decision that will turn a mediocre film with a low-ceiling like “Ghost In The Shell” into a box-office success. A 1980’s Japanese Noir Comic Book Sci-Fi was never going to do well in the US Market, and with an Asian lead might have come and gone in Asia too, but as a vehicle for an American superstar, it has a (pretty good) chance to be a global commercial win for everyone.
Whitewashing happens. Dr. Strange was made by Americans, for Americans, and was so bad I really don’t remember much: Cumberbatch was an asshole; the effects were corny, even for Marvel; Rachel McAdams was spectacular (has she ever been bad? @ me); and Tilda Swinton was hired by a blind casting director. I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking there. Screenwriter Robert Cargill is quoted as saying they were trying to avoid the racial tropes of the source material, but guess what? It still did impossible numbers! Only $232 million of its $677 million gross revenue was domestic, meaning globally it CAKED UP, despite all of the whitewashing controversy.
The idea that American films which adapt foreign stories should only cast minority actors is akin to saying you don’t want people in Tahiti to have Wi-Fi because you need a place to “escape from technology”, to which I ask,
who do you think you are? Everyone deserves Wi-Fi, and every culture deserves star power in adaptations of their cherished IP. We don’t get to be offended by that just because we’re bored of American movie stars. The economic development of the planet inevitably changes the way money is made, and just because a filmmaker casts an American in an Asian story, doesn’t mean the movie is doomed to fail. In American media, we have been exploiting foreign stories for centuries. The Little Mermaid was white, but she sure as hell didn’t speak English; Jesus is the most whitewashed figure in history, yet people are out here screaming about Ghost in the Shell.
You guys should travel more. The world is a big place.