This article was originally published in the Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!
Over the past few years, there have been a number of promising starts in Hollywood’s efforts for more diverse representation—films and television series like Rogue One, Luke Cage, and the recently cancelled Sense8 have been a welcome break from the regular slate of homogeneous time-fillers. But for every step in the right direction, a spate of controversial whitewashing decisions seems to follow close behind, often hindering (or at least perceived by some to have hindered) the projects’ financial success.
Studios are learning this lesson the hard way. When Rupert Sanders’ controversial Ghost in the Shell bet big on well-known white actress Scarlett Johansson to fill the shoes of a Japanese character (or at least a character that many have long assumed is Japanese)—“Major” Motoko Kusanagi—the film was hammered at the box office, losing an estimated $60 million. Some argued that Ghost in the Shell’s box office failure was a result of backlash against the perceived whitewashing—a protest by those who had hoped to see a non-white take on a beloved anime series.
Whatever the reality, the film industry continues to flounder under the weight of its own decision-making. It’s too risky to be diverse, and too risky not to be. Or so Hollywood studios seem to believe.
The argument that diversity doesn’t sell has long been touted as the reason many films and TV shows stick to the tried and true white faces audiences know best. Proponents of that model claim that economics are the driving force behind every decision. But recent blockbuster successes should serve as proof to showrunners and directors everywhere that this simply isn’t the case.
“The Fast and Furious franchise has repeatedly demonstrated that global audiences already embrace films with multicultural casts united as an onscreen family. And yet, Hollywood persists in thinking white equals box office might,” explains Craig Detweiler, Professor of Communication at Pepperdine University. “Hopefully, the resistance to the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell can cure the studios of what ails them.”
The numbers don’t lie. Ghost in the Shell raked in a total global haul of $170 million as of this writing. That might seem like a decent number, but given its global projections and the fact that it spent around $250 million in production, print, and advertising costs, as according to Deadline, it’s a pricey blunder. In contrast, The Fate of the Furious—the franchise’s eighth installment since 2001—pulled in a whopping $1.197 billion overall within the first month of its release, give or take a few days. Its production budget was around $250 million.
“Execs need to place more faith in filmgoers’ sensitivity to what’s true to the story and the diverse times we’re living in,” Detweiler says.
Pointing to the success of films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which focuses on a young interracial couple, he adds, “Our colorful era deserves more imaginative casting decisions. Otherwise, studios may discover that audiences have decided to ‘Get Out’ of the movie theater.”
While it was made on a budget of $4.5 million, Get Out—a thriller about a young black man who discovers that his white girlfriend’s family is hiding a dark secret—went on to achieve both critical success and a $245 million worldwide box office reward. Get Out may not have been an intentional blockbuster like The Fate of the Furious, but with its cast of minority actors and writer-director Jordan Peele behind the wheel, it too served as an important reminder to the rest of Hollywood that giving diversity a platform can literally pay off.
Had Ghost in the Shell producers witnessed the phenomenon that was Get Out prior to making the decision to cast Johansson, would they have done things differently? It’s hard to tell. If booming franchises like Fast and the Furious weren’t enough to convince them, it’s unlikely a small-budgeted project like Peele’s surprise horror masterpiece would have done anything to convince them their strategy was flawed.
Arguably though, it is those one-off hits, those indie films, and those underdog shows with a wide range of talent that will, going forward, alter the landscape the most. The impact they have may not be immediately apparent to studio execs, but slowly and surely they’re proving that a whitewashed cast with gleaming accolades isn’t nearly as lucrative as betting on a diverse, talented team to win over audiences.
The film industry isn’t alone in its struggle. In early 2016, rumors began circulating that Marvel was floating the idea of casting then-27-year-old Game of Thrones actor, Finn Jones, in the lead role for its upcoming Netflix series, Iron Fist. Though the character, Danny Rand, was originally a white male in the comics as well, fans and critics alike argued that showrunners would be wise to instead cast an Asian lead.
“A casting reversal would have turned a stereotypical narrative into a fresh story about an Asian-American reclaiming his roots,” Vulture’s E. Alex Jung wrote in an interview with Lewis Tan, a half-Asian (on his father’s side) and half-British (on his mother’s side) martial arts expert and actor who read for the role. (Tan was eventually cast as a villain in one episode and stole the spotlight with his portrayal of drunken assassin Zhou Cheng.)
It certainly would have been a refreshing change of pace. Up until that point, Marvel, DC, and a slate of other studios had been rightly criticized for whitewashing roles meant for minority actors: Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul in the rebooted Batman series, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, to name a few.
When Marvel finally announced that Jones had officially been cast as the series lead, the backlash was swift. Choosing a white actor to play a white role was understandable. But as Tan himself told Vulture, the casting decision felt like a “missed opportunity,” especially in an era when minority roles were already scarce.
There was some glimmer of hope in the show’s secondary lead, Jessica Henwick. Henwick, who plays martial arts master Colleen Wing in both Iron Fist and The Defenders, was a breath of fresh air, and immediately became a fan favorite. But even Henwick admits it wasn’t an easy decision to sign on to the embattled project, although it was ultimately worth it, given her character’s stake in other Marvel productions.
“I saw the scope of the possibilities, and that was what convinced me,” she says during a phone conversation with Den of Geek, remarking on what persuaded her to take on the challenge. “It was always Colleen that convinced me.”
Critics might agree that there was little that could have saved Iron Fist. But if nothing else, Henwick’s presence proves, once again, that there’s major value to be found in diverse casting. At some point, someone will need to step up and blast it over a loudspeaker: ignoring minorities to ensure a presumed boost in sales projections or playing it safe may work for a time, but in the long run, it will only come back to haunt you.
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