Back in 2016, when Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead in the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake, critics balked, lamenting that such a prominent blockbuster role, which should have been performed by an Asian woman, was instead given to a white woman. It was part of a larger Hollywood trend, of Asian roles being performed by white leads, that began all the way back in the silent film era, when Mary Pickford performed as Cho-Cho-San in Madam Butterfly. Beyond that, the practice was common in theater as well.
Defenders and justifiers of this practice make their argument upon “pragmatic” concerns — a rhetorical trick that dismisses the more complex, difficult-to-solve dynamics at play. For example: “Hollywood would create a film with Asian leads,” they reasoned, “if those movies made money.” “The films would not even be in production,” they claimed, “unless a white lead actor signed on in the first place.”
This argument, at its core, absolves the studios, the actors, and filmmakers of blame, and instead, places the onus upon the paying audience. But this is a self-defeating, self-serving proposition. The major Hollywood studios are at least complicit in this “whitewashing” effect; they determine what the public consumes, and they help to establish the norms. It’s not worthwhile to play “chicken or the egg” over how things got this way; it is worthwhile to break a cycle that was created.
And 2018 will be remembered as the year that the lie–about minority leads and their lack of bankability–got exposed. The hit, minority-helmed films of 2018 were not “niche” interest, making a killing on the awards circuit but nowhere else; they were multi-million dollar blockbusters. Black Panther, released in February 2018, grossed over $1.3 billion at the global box office. It is the highest grossing solo superhero movie, to date, and it is only behind the Avengers films for superhero films overall. That’s more than PR talking; that’s money talking.
And in what has since become known as “Asian August,” Asian-led films led the global box office in August 2018. Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu, raked in close to $240 million, while low budget indie film Searching, starring John Cho did close to $74 million against a $1 million budget. These actors are not A-List, instant-hit movie stars like Tom Cruise or George Clooney. But backed by a solid script and solid camera work, they shone on their own merits.
Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Searching were all written and directed by people of color; even writer/director Spike Lee, who is normally minimized as a niche filmmaker, had his biggest hit in 12 years with BlacKKKlansman. All of this raises another key point; it is not enough to cast minorities haphazardly, in a bid for token diversity and the appearance of progressivism. Minorities need to be in control of their own stories and narratives. And audiences need to demand it, rather than accept co-option as a necessary reality to doing business.
There is still work to be done. Minority filmmakers, writers, and actors are empowered and have their foot in the door, but that is all it is; it takes a sustained push over years, not a single month, to move the needle. And one day, these filmmakers should not bear the burden of being THE film that carries an entire group’s hopes and expectations. Writer/director Jordan Peele had to clarify that his new horror/thriller film Us, (due out on March 15, 2019) does not make race its main issue. One looks forward to a time, hopefully sooner rather than later, that this is no longer a necessary point of clarification.