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I am a very lucky man, and one of the reason I am so lucky is that I have the best readers for which anyone could ever hope. I consistently receive quality correspondence from readers across the globe who bring tremendous insight to many of the issues about which I write. I am always grateful to receive such correspondence as it helps to elevate not only me and my quest for understanding, but the conversation or debate that I think is necessary for growth, both personal and collective.
In keeping with my lucky streak concerning thoughtful readers, yesterday I received an email from a longtime reader of my blog in response to my "Whitewashing Controversy" article that I posted the other day. The reader, who I'll call Tiny Dancer, is a very talented, successful, working Asian-American actress. I have always found Tiny Dancer to be an astute and discerning person with a very insightful perspective on things, and her email to me regarding the whitewashing issue is more proof of that.
I thought Tiny Dancer's email would be useful in broadening the discussion about whitewashing and may help bring the issue into a more clear focus. For that reason, I share it with you now. Here is the email...
"Thank you for writing this and sharing it. It’s a great article, well thought out with a definitive POV which I so appreciate.
Below are thoughts I had that, most likely, are more addendums to your article. I view them as spring boards for interesting dialogue we can have.
1. Thank you for pointing out the difference between white washing and yellow face. Important distinction and not one many people think to make. Salient.
2. The statistics you bring up are important to highlight and I’m so glad you published them: Blacks and Asians are being appropriately represented, and thank god. However, and maybe people aren’t consciously thinking of it this way, I think people are responding to the amount of RELATABLE STORIES being told that don’t span the ethnic statistic. So, while actors are being statistically represented in TV / movies, the stories themselves are not statistically represented. Sure, stories are human stories. But most likely a White person wrote it, another White person is the show runner, the writers room is White, the grips, the sound crew, the key, the camera operator, are White. yes that’s from the very limited Hollywood perspective, but look how close I am to it, and it looks like that. Ok, so now I’m someone outside of the industry sitting down to watch a show about a family drama, or a work show comedy…. and even though 12% of my population is being repped, are they people in the foreground with lines? Or are they in the background with no lines, but they COUNT as a statistic b/c technically they’re SAG so they’re on the payroll. And even if they are being seen, and speaking, is the story being told from THEIR perspective? Or does their opinion count as only 12% important to the story?
OK so then, we ask: is this the responsibility of the White/Jewish/male that currently runs the studio/network? One would, smartly argue, of course not. ANYBODY is welcome to write a story and broadcast it. well, then WHY aren’t these stories being repped by said ethnic groups? Are they not writing / creating them? hmmm… So THEN we wonder: maybe they are writing them, but they're not being given the opportunity/power to greenlight these projects? Does this turn into an affirmative action work place, larger than Hollywood, American, global issue? Maaaayyyyybeeeee.
3. Chloe Bennett: I don’t know her, never met her, but….Crying Racist aside, she’s not ENTIRELY wrong. I had been advised to change my last name many times when I was younger, and because I was from a different generation, I chose NOT to give in to the social media pressure of white washing and proudly clung to my birth name.
The truth is….It has sort of gotten in my way.
Not because I can’t face the fact that sometimes I’m just not the right person person for the role, but because sometimes your name is just on a list. Initially. And sometimes you just get cut from the list. Because when someone doesn’t know who you are, and your name is all they’re staring at in a sea of names in an email, and it reads “ETHNIC”, you’re cut. When they're looking for a lead, chances are better with “Bennett” over “Wang”. Because you have to understand that…still….to this day, if the breakdown doesn’t mention “open to any ethnicity” then EVERYONE will read it as “WHITE GIRL”. Wong or Wright, that’s the way it is.
4. Reverse Racism: Yes, yes I hear you. Salient point and will likely be a topic I continue to wrestle with/think about for the rest of my life.
5. By virtue of the fact that you write movie reviews, I think you’d agree that everybody views talent through a subjective lens. When you investigate what is subjective, you can't help but see that it’s all driven by Emotion. This irrational component called emotion that dances through your White Washing article isn’t evil, but also isn’t exalted. Like it or not, we are driven by it when we watch movies and TV shows through the lens of personal experience. So then why wouldn’t it be fair for a casting director/producer/director to do the same? Why can’t they view an actor in the room through their own personal lens of history, privilege or lack thereof, economic status, or if that someone reminds them of someone they love or loathe etc…. I cannot believe I’m taking that POV at the moment, because I’m mostly on the receiving end of their emotional preference. Which means not working most the time. But I, like you, am interested in all angles and find it’s fair to look from their perspective as well.
So, if it’s fair for one as a critic to respond with a personal opinion, then it’s fair for that person casting a movie and it’s fair for Chloe Bennett and it’s fair for on and on and on…..
Like a fun house mirror that goes back and back... Sifting through "Why Was This Person Cast" will never have a satisfying answer. We'll never know if an Asian / Black / Latina actor would be better off in the role written "ethnically ambiguous" or if the White person that gets cast really was the best actor in the room. Emotion wins.
Which brings us to...Your last statement: Hollywood is equal parts shitty.
Ok. So how does it get fixed?
MAYBE by someone like Ed Skrein stepping down and starting this conversation between us, and others……
I would love to keep talking about this. None of this was said with judgement and written with the hope that we can keep dialoguing.
You’re a smart AND compassionate human, first and foremost. Your compassion drives you to write beyond boundary and political correctness which is always applause worthy. I’m so curious if you’ll get responses on this, please share if you do."
I thank the Tiny Dancer for sharing her thoughts and encourage anyone else who has them to do so.
Another piece of information worth contemplating was in an article in the Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday of this week that states that the film Flash Boys will not go into production because Hollywood either can't, or won't, find an Asian actor for the lead role. Flash Boys, in case you do not know, is a book written by Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short, all of which were turned into very successful films. Prior to all the focus on whitewashing, Flash Boys would have just cast a well-known White actor in the role of the Asian character and not thought twice about it. But now that the issue is under such scrutiny, that is not an option that casting people and producers can take.
Flash Boys not being made due to an inability to find an appropriate Asian actor for the lead is another pivotal piece of information about this issue, but one that is very difficult to solve. At the moment, there are simply no Asian actors in Hollywood in that age range with sufficient star power and acting credibility to be able to not only financially open a film, but creatively carry one.
As Tiny Dancer points out, maybe Ed Skrein backing out of Hellboy is the first step in changing the fundamentals of Hollywood so that more Asian actors will get opportunities earlier on, and from those opportunities maybe an actor of great talent and star power will emerge in order to fill the void that currently exists regarding Asian actors. I certainly hope so.
Which brings me to a discussion I had with another reader who thought I was "racist" because I stated in my article that, "Merit is why he (Ed Skrein) was chosen, not race, and replacing him with an ethnically "appropriate" actor who was not as good, will reduce the quality of the film". To clarify, what I was saying in that quote was that Skrein was deemed to be the best actor to have auditioned...by the producer. What my accuser interpreted that sentence to mean was that I believed that Asian actors simply cannot be as good as White actors because of their ethnicity. I prefer to chalk this misunderstanding up to my weakness as writer more than anything else.
In the light of that misunderstanding, I feel it necessary to state the most painfully obvious thing about this issue, and that is, that there is no question that Asian actors are capable of being truly great actors and movie stars. Proof of this fact is that some of the greatest actors and movie stars the world has ever known were Asian.
A great example is Bruce Lee, who was a victim of whitewashing himself back at the start of his career, when he created the concept for the television show Kung Fu, and then had the idea and the show stolen out from under him by Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers promptly cast David Carradine, a White actor, to play the role of the mysterious Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine that was originally intended for Lee. Bruce Lee had to go all the way to Hong Kong to get his big break in movies, and once that opportunity arose he made the most of it by becoming the biggest movie star in the world before his untimely death.
A different type of example is Toshiro Mifune, one of the greatest actors to have ever lived. Though Mifune never rose to the heights of Bruce Lee in terms of Hollywood stardom, that had more to do with his limited English language skills, and not his tremendous acting ability. In fact, Mifune is one of the actors I consistently show clips of to my clients and students in order to teach them about acting and approaches to character and physicality. In my mind, he was truly a master and is on the Mount Rushmore of Greatest Actors of All-Time.
The reason I bring up Bruce Lee and Toshiro Mifune, two of my favorite actors, is to squelch any absurd and offensive notion or misinterpretation, that Asian actors are somehow less capable of being great or accepted by wide audiences simply because they are Asian. Mifune and Lee are just two of many examples that prove that mis-guided notion wrong.
In conclusion, whitewashing is a very complicated and nuanced issue, one that can lead to either a civil and productive discussion, or one that can lead to a passionate argument. In my experience, it takes two respectful people of good will to have a civil discussion, but it only takes one emotion-fueled jackass to have an argument. I truly thank Tiny Dancer for adding to the whitewashing discussion by sharing her thoughts and experiences, and for not assuming me to be the aforementioned jackass. I hope this is a first step in a long and fruitful conversation.