It seems like the movie industry can’t go a few months without there being some sort of controversy based around race. Earlier this year we had the Doctor Strange trailer, which stirred people up because Tilda Swinton, a white woman, had been cast in the role of The Ancient One, who is traditionally a Tibetan man. We also saw the release of the film Aloha, which featured Emma Stone, a white woman, playing Allison Ng, a half Asian character.
There was the Oscars, which featured a solid twenty out of a possible twenty white nominees in the various acting categories. Then we had the first image from the 2017 release Ghost in the Shell, which had Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, playing The Major, a character who’s name in the source material is Motoko Kusanagi, although her actual ethnicity is questionable considering she’s a purple haired cybernetic human.
The most recent controversy saw Matt Damon and the upcoming fantasy epic The Great Wall come under fire. This half Chinese half American production is a fictional adventure set in ancient China, but it has a white man in the lead role. The problem most people have with it is that there was no special white man in ancient China, leading their army in battle against a horde of otherworldly monsters, so it’s not a historically accurate representation of the time.
So why is this still happening? For anyone that doesn’t know the answer to that question, I’ll make it as easy as possible: it’s all about money. To put it simply, audiences that are traditionally thought of as being white, in other words America and most of Europe, don’t tend to go and see films starring non white leads, and there is some evidence to support this. Look no further than 2014’s The Raid 2, one of the best reviewed action films of recent years, but it only made $6.6 million worldwide.
On the other side of that debate, traditionally non-white audiences, in other words the rest of the world, are willing to see films starring white leads. I don’t feel like I need to give any examples to support this, but if you would like some just look up the all time worldwide top 10 box office, and count how many have a white person in the lead role. Ok, I’ll do it for you, it’s nine out of ten, and tenth being Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that’s a bit of a different example. With Star Wars, the actors have never been important. Yes, people do love the characters and the actors, but it’s the brand that sells tickets, and not the actors that are in it. An argument could be made that Daisy Ridley, a white actress, plays the lead character anyway.
There’s something else that a lot of people aren’t commenting on, and that’s the fact that something very similar is happening the other way round. A lot of big films in the last few years have added Asian characters in an effort to, you guessed it, make more money. The most notable example is Transformers: Age of Extinction, which added Chinese actress Bingbing Li to the cast, and became the first film to make $300 million in China. Avengers: Age of Ultron featured Korean actress Claudia Kim, and made more than $1.4 billion worldwide.
Then there’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which featured Bingbing Fan in a small (almost silent) role. She played Blink, whose real name is Clarice Ferguson. She was also in some scenes in Iron Man 3. Don’t remember those? That’s because they were in an alternate cut only released in China. However you look at it, making a different cut of a film is definitely pandering to an audience.
Before I go any further I just want to go back to Doctor Strange for a minute, and speak about the character Baron Mordo. This is a Transylvanian (or Romanian), and traditionally white character, who’s being played by Chiwitel Ejiofor, a hugely talented actor who isn’t white. Isn’t it strange (pun intended) that the same people who were upset about The Ancient One weren’t upset about Baron Mordo, or are those examples different for some reason? I want to make it clear that I have no problem with either of these casting choices, because both Tilda Swinton and Chiwitel Ejiofor are Oscar calibre actors, and as a fan of the source material, I’m pleased to have this level of talent attached, and taking it seriously.
Now I know there is a difference between two of the things I’ve been speaking about. Having a non white supporting character shoehorned into a film isn’t exactly the same as having a white lead character shoehorned in, but they’re both being done for the same reason. People are up in arms about the fact that non white actors and actresses aren’t getting as many opportunities as they should, and that’s true, but most of these people didn’t see The Raid 2. Most of them have probably never paid to see a Chinese film, or a Bollywood film in the cinema, and therefore aren’t giving studios a reason to cast films in a more diverse way.
Yes, a very solid argument can be made that the studio system is racist against non white actors, but they’re only giving audiences what audiences have a track record of paying to see. Isn’t it time to start blaming the audiences, and not the studios?
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