All told, it hasn’t been the best week in the PR offices of the Hollywood film industry.
In what might be the first move of its kind, Deadpool star Ed Skrein announced his departure from the cast of Hellboy and his role as Asian-American soldier Ben Daimio on Monday, citing Hollywood’s “worrying tendency” to reimagine ethnic minority characters as white. As his decision was lauded by many on social media, including the original creator of the Hellboy comic series, actress Chloe Bennet revealed that she changed her name from Chloe Wang, after repeatedly facing discrimination from Hollywood casting agents. Again, not the best week for PR.
What both actors accused Hollywood producers of was ‘whitewashing’ – a term that is fast becoming the most toxic label to be associated with a fledgling studio project. American cinema has always struggled with the concept of racially sensitive casting, from the crude and offensive blackface of the 1920s to more recent criticisms of films like The Ghost in the Shell and Dr Strange, which cast Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton respectively in roles originally written as south-east Asian characters.
Following on from the ‘#OscarsSoWhite’ controversy last year, it should have been apparent to the producers of Hellboy that the tide of public opinion is turning, and shoehorning a white actor into a role that they really don’t belong in is as bad for business as it is morally reprehensible. It remains an uncomfortable truth, however, that Hollywood is perfectly happy to develop stories that borrow from other cultures, whilst denying non-white actors a chance to participate in their production.
The whitewashing debate, like all conversations around minority representation, often attracts criticism from its detractors as yet another example of the pitfalls of political correctness. Clearly, the expropriation of cultures and histories, alongside the marginalisation of the people to whom they belong, goes far beyond this. Denying non-white actors access to breakthrough roles in big-budget productions not only contributes to the embarrassing lack of diversity in Hollywood, but more worryingly reinforces the insidious notion that white actors are worth more on screen than their non-white counterparts.
Yet thanks to the actions of Ed Skrein (and doubtless the support he has received on social media) things may, finally, have reached a turning point. Crucially, Skrein spoke out against whitewashing before starting work on the film, unlike Johansson, Swinton, and many others, who took up their artificial roles before clutching at some form of retroactive justification for their actions. And equally, the Hellboy production team have apologised for their offensive casting, rather than attempting a damage-reduction approach of denial.
In these monolithic film companies, with their eyes aggressively fixed on profit margins, change thus far has been depressingly thin on the ground, and even harder to achieve in an industry notorious for conducting most of its business behind closed doors. Whatever progress has been made on this issue, individual cases do little to help the lack of diversity in general – we still have a situation where unless a role mandates a non-white actor, in all likelihood the position defaults to a white one.
From the days of early cinema, the guise of institutional racism in Hollywood has morphed, a fact which the film-going public is increasingly waking up to. But Ed Skein’s brave decision to speak out, emphasising that whitewashing is still a shameful tendency in mainstream film production, is perhaps a sign that things are slowly getting better.