With the recent release of Marvel’s DR. STRANGE where the Caucasian Tilda Swinton portrayed the Ancient One who was Asian in the original comics and the trailer for the upcoming live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime GHOST IN THE SHELL with Scarlett Johansson in the lead, the topic of “yellow face” and “whitewashing” is once again relevant. So what’s the difference between the two?
“Yellow face” is the practice of non-Asians portraying Asian characters–oftentimes in offensive “yellow face” make-up (i.e. the slanted eyes, buck teeth, etc…). This is something that’s as old as the movies themselves; going back to the early days of Hollywood when Caucasian actors like Richard Barthelmess donned “yellow face” to play a Chinese immigrant in the 1919 classic BROKEN BLOSSOMS or with the numerous white actors who took on the mantle of iconic Asian characters like Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. It’s a practice that still continues today, for example, in Cameron Crowe’s 2015 film ALOHA, where Emma Stone plays the hapa Allison Ng. True, the grotesque “yellow face” make-up and stereotypes from the past may not have been present, but it’s still a Caucasian actor pretending to be Asian.
“Whitewashing” is a more contemporary phenomenon—let’s call it the “politically correct” alternative to “yellow face”. In this case, non-Asian actors take on roles originally intended to be Asian, but instead of donning “yellow face” which would be blatantly “insensitive”, the identity and backgrounds of those characters are changed so they are no longer technically “Asian”. And while this may seem to be less offensive than non-Asians pretending to be Asian, it’s just as insidious because we are being completely erased from our own narratives and, in effect, rendered “invisible”.
So with that in mind, here’s a list of ten Hollywood films that should have starred Asians, but were “whitewashed”. In no particular order:
1) STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
If you thought it was odd that lily white Casper Van Dien was playing a character named John “Johnny” Rico in Paul Verhoeven’s big screen adaptation of Robert A. Heinlen’s 1959 military sci-fi novel, it’s because in the book, Rico is Filipino—the son of a wealthy Filipino family who joins the Terran Mobile Infantry to fight the alien threat over his parents’ objections. In fact, in the novel, the character’s nickname isn’t “Johnny”, but the more Filipino-sounding “Juan”. Verhoeven changed Rico’s background to make the character an Argentinian from Buenas Aires, but he’s still played by the aforementioned lily white Van Dien and not a more appropriate Latino actor so let’s call this a case of “double whitewashing”.
2) EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES (2010)
This medical drama based on the true story of a couple seeking a cure for their children’s rare genetic disorder (Pompe Disease) was a critical and box office failure so, like most people, you probably don’t even remember it. But the real life individual who developed the cure for Pompe Disease was Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen, a Taiwanese doctor who was working at the Duke University Medical Center during the events of the film. So who was cast to play the good doctor? Well…Harrison Ford, and, oh yeah, the name of the character was changed to Dr. Robert Stonewall so Indiana Jones could play him instead of an Asian actor. While it sucks that the film denied giving credit to the real man who created the real cure for a real disease, at least Dr. Chen didn’t have to see his name associated with a shitty movie if that’s any consolation.
3) ARGO (2012)
Director Ben Affleck received criticism for casting himself as Latino CIA agent Tony Mendez in his Oscar-winning film about the operation to rescue six Americans stuck in Tehran during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis. But there was another case of “whitewashing” in the movie that most people missed—Clea Duvall as Cora Lijek…a woman who was Japanese American. Although she had no foreign service experience, Lijek worked at the US embassy in Tehran with her husband, Mark, because she could speak Farsi. Along with four other Americans, the couple were forced to escape when the embassy was over-run by anti-American protestors and hid out in the home of a Canadian diplomat until the daring CIA plan could be executed. Here are the Lijeks talking about their experiences:
4) STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
For those who are still unclear on the difference between “yellow face” and “whitewashing”, perhaps this example will help clarify. In the original STAR TREK series episode “Space Seed” and 1982’s STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, the villainous Khan Noonien Singh was Indian, but portrayed by the Latino Ricardo Montalban. That’s an example of “yellow face” where a non-Asian plays an Asian role. In J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Khan is played by the very white and very British Benedict Cumberbatch with zero explanation of how the character went from being an Indian dude to suddenly being a pasty white dude in this alternate timeline. That’s “whitewashing” where all remnants of an Asian character’s ethnicity and background are erased so that a white guy can play the role without resorting to “yellow face”. Except “whitewashing” is equally offensive and again…HOW THE FUCK DID AN INDIAN GUY SUDDENLY TURN INTO A PASTY WHITE DUDE WITH NO EXPLANATION?!
5) 21 (2008)
There may be no better example of “whitewashing” in recent history than 21—the true story of a group of brainy MIT students who became experts at card counting and used that skill to win millions at the Vegas casinos. Only problem is…most of the students were Asian American, but in the film, not so much–save for the presence of Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira in supporting roles. In fact, Ben Campbell, the main character played by Jim Sturgess, was based on Chinese American MIT student Jeff Ma. When Ma told the press that he was fine with the casting decision, outrage and controversy followed–forcing Ma to defend and double down on his statements. At one point, he told USA Today that “I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.” Oh-kay, Jeff.
6) THE MARTIAN (2015)
I know some people criticized the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor due to the fact the character is Indian in Andy Weir’s novel and Ejiofor is not. But I’m personally OK with the film’s explanation that Ejiofor is “hapa” and his father is Indian. But it’s the character of NASA engineer Mindy Park (played by HALT AND CATCH FIRE’s Mackenzie Davis) that’s more problematic. Weir has said that he always perceived Mindy Park as Korean, but did not explicitly write her as such so her ethnicity was open to interpretation and, frankly, I know a couple of white folks with the last name “Park” so this casting is not out of the realm of reality. But it’s still a missed opportunity—in many ways, Park is the most relatable character in the story, serving as the audience surrogate to take us into a world we’re not familiar with and it would have been great for an Asian American actress to take on that role.
7) THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)
Based on the popular animated series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, M. Night Shyamalan adapted the story of Aang, a young Avatar who must master all four elements and bring peace to the various nations. In the original animated series, most of the characters are clearly Asian, but with some exceptions–most notably SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s Dev Patel as the evil Prince Zuko–the Indian American Shyamalan cast mostly white actors in the main roles. The film was panned by fans and critics alike and went on to sweep the 2010 Golden Raspberry Awards, which recognizes the “worst’ films of the year, with five wins including “Worst Picture”.
8) BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
I remember how cool it was when Christopher Nolan’s gritty reboot of the famous comic book franchise came out and we’d get to see the badass Ken Watanabe take on the part of the badass Ra’s Al Ghul—one of the most interesting villains in the Dark Knight’s rogue gallery who is usually identified as Arab or Asian. And although it was disappointing that he died so early in the film, it was still awesome to see a great Asian actor playing a major, iconic role in a big Hollywood blockbuster. That is until that third act reveal when we learned that Liam Neeson’s Ducard was really Ra’s Al Ghul all along and Watanabe was nothing more than a minion pretending to be the big bad to throw off both dumbasses like Bruce Wayne/Batman and all of us sitting in the audience who were hoping for something more.
9) DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION (2009)
Loosely based on Akira Toriyama’s Japanese manga DRAGON BALL, director James Wong chose to keep many of the source material’s Asian elements, which is why it was odd that Goku was played by SHAMELESS’ Justin Chatwin even though his grandfather, Grandpa Gohan, was played by Korean American Randall Duk Kim (I guess he was…adopted?). As with THE LAST AIRBENDER, fans criticized the film for its casting choices and, well, for making a shitty movie on top of that and earlier this year, the film’s screenwriter Ben Ramsey apologized for his contribution by saying, in part: “I went into the project chasing after a big payday, not as a fan of the franchise but as a businessman taking on an assignment. I have learned that when you go into a creative endeavor without passion you come out with sub-optimal results, and sometimes flat out garbage. So I’m not blaming anyone for Dragonball but myself.”
10) TRUE BELIEVER (1989)
Korean American Chol Soo Lee was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1973 murder of a San Francisco Chinatown gang member. Only problem is Lee was innocent of the crime and was finally exonerated in 1983 after the hard work of investigative reporter (and occasionally YOMYOMF contributor) K.W. Lee and the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. Unfortunately, none of that is reflected in the film adaptation of the Lee case where the heroic figures who fight to free the unjustly imprisoned Lee (re-named Shu Kai Kim in the movie and played by Yuji Okumoto) are two white lawyers (James Woods and a young Robert Downey Jr). True, this isn’t technically an example of “whitewashing” in the strictest sense of that word, but I’m including it here because if “whitewashing” is about erasing our presence and rendering us invisible, I can’t think of a better example of that than TRUE BELIEVER.
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