Once again, a Hollywood film has political correctness furies attacking its casting. This time, it’s the sci-fi “Ghost in the Shell,” starring Scarlett Johansson.
The sad fact is, movie makers can’t win. If a black actor isn’t cast to play a white character in the source material, Hollywood is engaging in bias by eschewing “non-traditional casting,” which is necessary to remedy de facto segregation and prejudice in movies. If Charlton Heston is cast as a Mexican, as in “Touch of Evil,” it’s “whitewashing”—prejudicial and racist casting of whites to play non-whites. Of course, when Morgan Freeman, an African American, is cast to play a dark skinned Semitic character in “Ben Hur,” nobody calls that “blackwashing,” for there is no such thing as blackwashing. Casting Denzel Washington as a white character from “The Pelican Brief”: great! Who doesn’t like Denzel? Casting Denzel as the white hero of “The Magnificent Seven” in the remake, when the white hero was non-traditionally cast with the sort-of Eurasian Yul Brenner in the original, was also great, because—who doesn’t like Denzel? Casting Andy Garcia, a Cuban-American, as member of the Italian Corleone family in “Godfather III” was also fine and dandy, but not the casting of sort-of Eurasion Brenner as the King of Siam in “The King and I,” (even though he won the Tony and the Academy Award for an iconic performance)—, especially with all those great Thai musical comedy stars available. So that was–what, “sort-of-whitewashing”?
All right: how about a musical conceived with the novel conceit of having the Founding Fathers played by young black and Hispanic performers? Is that non-traditional casting? Minority-washing? Is it racist to stay with the original (brilliant) concept and tell white actors they can’t audition to be Hamilton, Jefferson, and Aaron Burr? Of course it’s not racist. After all, those actors are white. Screw ’em.
Are you seeing a theme here? Neither am I. What matters in casting a play, film or writing an adaptation is whether the final result works: How well do the actors play their roles? Is it entertaining? Does it make money?
Now the casting of Johansson as an originally Japanese character in a Japanese manga comic and animated film is being attacked as racist. Whitewashing, you know. No, in fact the words applicable here are “adaptations,” “movies,” “cultural cross-pollination” and “commerce.” In this case, not always, but in this case, the accusation of “whitewashing” is pure race-baiting.
More than forty years ago, the real life German prison camp escape engineered by captured WWII British fliers was made into the film “The Great Escape.” Brits were annoyed as production got underway, however, by the presence of heroic American prisoners in the cast, the characters played by U.S. stars James Garner and Steve McQueen. This was, British critics and veterans said, an outrage: Americans had nothing to do with the real escape. The answer by the producers contained three segments:
1. We own the film rights, and can do whatever we think will make the best movie.
2. The film is fictionalized, and makes no representations to the contrary.
3. Garner and McQueen will ensure that the film makes a profit in the U.S, plus they are both great and entertaining young stars.
Good justifications all. “The Great Escape,” as we now know, is a classic, still honored the real event, and made lots of money. Somehow, British self-esteem recovered.
The Brits also didn’t complain when Japan’s great film auteur director, Akira Kurasawa, made an all-Japanese cast adaptation of “King Lear,” which is about a Celtic king. Wasn’t this–what, “yellow-washing”? Don’t be silly: all good stories can be told in myriad ways, in many cultural contexts. “Ghost in the Shell” is a science fiction fantasy. It is not about real people, and the characters were Japanese because the author and intended audience were Japanese—you know, like the original “King Lear” was in Elizabethan English.
“Ghost in the Shell” director Rupert Sanders cast Johansson as the cyborg assassin named Motoko Kusanagi in the original and renamed the character “Mira Killian.” It is the “Who doesn’t like Denzel?” non-traditional casting principle, except the even more understandable “Who doesn’t like Scarlet, especially when she looks naked for much of the movie?” variation. The perambulations of critics trying to find something racist about the most obvious box office casting choice imaginable border on hilarious. At some point, actress Johansson decided it was more lucrative and fun being the next female action movie star than starring in solemn costume drama bombs like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Since then, she has been rising as a bankable star in blockbusters like “The Avenger” films and “Lucy.” Quick: name another hot (I mean, of course, popular and bankable) female action star?
Writes Matt Golberg in a laugh riot called “Ghost in the Shell is Racist In Surprising Ways”” (another whitewashing screed, equally lame, is here):
[T]he opportunity that could have come to a Japanese actress like Rinko Kikuchi or Tao Okamoto instead went to Johansson, arguably the safer bet financially, but inconsistent with how studios approach other blockbuster films.
Rinko Kikuchi and Tao Okamoto! I love them! They are both household names in Alexandria, Virginia, let me tell you! I never miss anything they are in!
Who the hell are Rinko Kikuchi and Tao Okamoto? Goldberg then cites the casting of the immortal Jack Huston as Ben Hur in the re-make last year as “how studios approach other blockbuster films” by casting lesser known stars. Here, let me fix that for you, Matt: it’s “how studios approach other blockbuster films when they make idiotic casting decisions that lead to the films bombing.” Jack Huston replacing Charlton Heston! What a great idea, giving Jack that “opportunity”!
“Ben Hur” lost between 65 and 120 million dollars, depending on who’s counting.
They should have cast Rinko Kikuchi or Tao Okamoto…
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, unethical about adapting a story from another country and placing it someplace else. (This post isn’t about “cultural appropriation,” but it could be). There is nothing unethical in the slightest about changing the gender, race, ethnicity or anything else about a fictional character. (Jack Reacher, a huge juggernaut of a man in the popular action novels, has now been played twice, entertainingly, by Tom Cruise. “Shrimp-washing”?) There is certainly nothing unethical about tailoring a project for a star to maximize the marketability of the final movie.
There is something unethical about calling artists racists just because they don’t do what you want them to do, or because they aren’t willing to risk millions to advance your ideological agenda. Make your own damn movie.
As for disappointed Japanese fans of “Ghost of the Shell,” nothing says they have to see Scarlett, and they still have the original.
You know…like “King Lear.”