A White Actor Grows Some Bollocks - Quill’s Scribbles
You may recall that movie studio Lionsgate got themselves into a bit of hot water last week when they announced the casting of Ed Skrein as Major Ben Daimio in their upcoming Hellboy reboot. The problem was Major Ben Daimio is a Japanese character in the source material, making Hellboy the latest of numerous sci-fi and/or comic book adaptations to whitewash a prominent Asian character. I and many others made our views heard, voicing our strongest and angriest objections to this blatant bit of racist erasure (for whitewashing is objectively racist and totally inexcusable) just as we did with the likes of Doctor Strange, Death Note and Ghost In The Shell. But unlike those projects I just listed, the most extraordinary thing happened. Somebody listened.
Oh not the studio obviously. No, it was Ed Skrein himself. Realising the hornet’s nest he had kicked, Skrein actually announced via his social media accounts that he was dropping out of the role.
This open letter has received a positive response from fans and readers. Hellboy producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin made a joint statement in support saying:
“Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”
Even Hellboy creator Mike Mignola chipped in to offer his praise for Skrein’s decision to step down.
Now it would be easy to take a very cynical approach to all of this. Perhaps claim that Skrein only stepped down because he realised the damage all of this backlash could do to his career, but for once I’m willing to put aside my cynicism. I do actually believe Ed Skrein’s sincerity here. He seems to be genuinely apologetic, initially not realising the implications of what he was doing and now seems determined to make amends.
However I’m not exactly willing to praise him for his decision. At least not to the same extent others are. I can understand why people are praising him so heavily. This is an almost unprecedented move. Having put up with loads of A list white actors giving the weakest and most pathetic excuses to justify their own racist bullshit, the idea of a white actor growing some bollocks and actually stepping down from a whitewashed role purely on moral grounds is a novelty. He quit a tentpole movie purely because it was the right thing to do, and I am grateful for that. But can we try and keep this in perspective? This decision wasn’t courageous or brave. It’s just an actor turning down a role. A role that should never have been offered to him in the first place. While I’m pleased that Ed Skrein did the decent thing in the end, the fact is this entire situation should never have happened in the first place. Asian characters should be played by Asian actors. That should not be a difficult concept for filmmakers to wrap their heads around, and I feel I should point out I still don’t trust Lionsgate in the fucking slightest. Oh they’re going to cast a Japanese actor as Ben Daimio now if they know what’s good for them, but if Ed Skrein didn’t take the moral high ground, they wouldn’t have learnt a damn thing. Let’s not forget the studio’s initial response to the controversy came from this now deleted tweet from Hellboy executive producer Christa Campbell:
We don’t see colours or race. The slogan for closet racists the world over.
See this is what so many white people in positions of power and authority within the industry need to understand when it comes to POC presentation. Being colourblind sounds good in theory, but in practice it can be very dangerous. When you make an actor’s performance or marketability the only criteria, you end up making stupid mistakes like this. When you racebend a white character, it’s fine. We already have plenty of representation, plus 9 times out of 10 being white isn’t actually integral to the character. For characters of colour on the other hand, you’ve got to take these other factors into consideration. Usually the culture of said character is integral plus it’s important for non white characters to be portrayed on screen not just for equality, but also for variety.
Recently I finally got to watch the Disney movie Moana, and I’m currently slightly obsessed with it. Not just because it’s a fun, smartly written musical with a great female protagonist, lovable characters, funny jokes and a heartwarming message behind it. It’s also because it explores myths and cultures I’ve never got to experience before.
Moana takes a lot of influence and inspiration from Polynesian culture and mythology, most notably adapting the stories of the demigod Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson). I have no idea how accurate this is, but I still loved it because it was something different. After seeing so many fantasy stuff like Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones, which are essentially variations on Norse mythology, as well as the trillions of Christian inspired fantasy stories, Moana feels incredibly fresh and unique. I found all the stuff about Maui and Te Fiti fascinating, and I would love to see more movies exploring these Polynesian myths and legends. There’s such an incredibly rich vein of creativity you could tap into here.
Something else I loved about Moana was they actually cast Polynesian actors as the characters. I’ve already mentioned Dwayne Johnson as Maui. There’s also Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa the crab, Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mum, Jango Fett himself Temuera Morrison as Moana’s dad, Rachel House as Moana’s granny, and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana herself. This is why diversity is so important in films. Not only does it give actors of colour more exposure and allow new talents like Cravalho to emerge and flourish, but it also exposes general movie going audiences to stories and cultures we wouldn’t normally get to see. And that’s why whitewashing is so offensive. It takes job opportunities away from actors of colour and also causes creativity to stagnate. When it’s an Asian character in an Asian inspired story, there’s lots of different directions you can go. When it’s a white character in an Asian inspired story, there’s only one story you can tell. The outsider. The stranger. The foreigner to their ways. That’s not interesting. We’ve seen that done loads of times. Plus if you truly want to immerse the audience in another culture, isn’t it better to have a character that actually represents that culture rather than some white dweeb who knows jackshit about it?
Basically what I’m saying is we need more movies like Moana and less movies like…
No I’m never dropping this. Fuck this movie and all who support it.
So while I’m pleased that Ed Skrein decided to do the right thing in the end, I’m still going to judge this Hellboy reboot with the suspicion and scorn it deserves. Sure they’re probably going to cast a Japanese actor as Ben Daimio, but only because they have to now to save themselves from further embarrassment. It’s not because they want to. If it was someone like Scarlett Johansson or Tilda Swinton, the studio would still be sticking to their guns and trying to justify their racist bullshit.
I’m glad Skrein managed to fix things and reveal A list white actors like Swinton and Johansson for the selfish, racist, privileged pricks that they are through his own selfless actions, but until the industry properly recognises that whitewashing is NEVER a good idea, nothing has actually changed as far as I’m concerned.