Alex Garland’s film adaption of the novel Annihilation has been accused of whitewashing two of the main characters. The early reactions for Annihilation have praised the film highly. Based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation tells the story of a group of female scientists who enter a strange area known as The Shimmer after a previous expedition injured one of their husbands and killed everyone else.
In the book, the story is narrated by the wife of the one man who returned – called only The Biologist, though named Lena in the film. While Lena is played by Natalie Portman, the character is of Asian descent in the books, a fact that is not revealed until the second book in the series. The Psychologist – renamed Dr. Ventress for the film – is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the book, the character is half-Caucasian and half-American Indian. Even though these two specific roles have been cast with Caucasian actresses, the movie features several people of color. Two of the other scientists are played by Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac plays Lena’s husband, and Benedict Wong plays a scientist.
According to THR, two organizations have accused the film of whitewashing these two characters: Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television. Meanwhile, VanderMeer has been supportive of the movie, even taking to Twitter to explain he doesn’t need the movie to be exactly like his book, he just wants it to be good. He has not yet addressed these specific accusations.
Yes, there are a lot of acts of translation, so to speak, and I never expected or wanted a faithful adaptation from Garland--just a good one.— Jeff VanderMeer (@jeffvandermeer) February 8, 2018
MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia spoke out against how Garland has chosen to cast these two characters:
“Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book. He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters and those roles could have bolstered the careers of women from those communities.”
She was backed up by Sonny Skyhawk, the founder of American Indians in Film and Television, who spoke out about the frequency of whitewashing in Hollywood.
“We are not surprised by the Whack-A-Mole diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish objecting to one whitewashed casting, another one pops up.”
In an interview with Nerdist in December 2017, Garland addressed the accusation of whitewashing. He noted he’d only read the first book in the series, saying:
“It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”
There have been a number of recent examples of movies and TV series accused of the practice. Recently, Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin was accused of putting makeup on extras to make them look like they’re from the Middle East. Ghost in the Shell received a lot of criticism for casting Scarlett Johansson in a role that was originally Asian and the Netflix series Death Note moved the setting from Japan to America and cast a number of Caucasian actors.
In spite of the fact that movies that cast Caucasian actors in roles originally created and intended for people of any other ethnicity have a tendency to suffer in terms of reviews, it does not seem to be a practice that is being retired as quickly as some would like. And Annihilation is poised to be well reviewed and received, making it the exception to the rule. However, accusations of whitewashing also can affect a movie’s success at the box office. So whether the movie suffers for Garland’s casting choice will not be known for a while.
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