It’s become the central question to any and all debates about whitewashing: should we blame the actors who’ve accepted these roles, or just the studios and directors? Today, actor Ed Skrein, who recently was cast in the Hellboy reboot, provided a definitive answer to the question by choosing to leave the film amidst controversy over his casting as Major Ben Daimio, a nonwhite character. Yes, we should blame the actors for accepting the role, because they have a choice to accept the role. Skrein’s decision shows as much.
In a heartfelt letter, Skrein said that he took the role while being unaware of the character’s heritage. The gist was simple: he did not want to talk over minority voices in the arts, and representation matters to him. Therefore, he would be leaving the role in order to help ensure a day would come where equal representation was a reality. The letter has generated instant positivity across the internet, with many fans praising his actions and his thoughtful words. It also has generated a slew of tweets and reactions that essentially boil down to “now no other actor has an excuse to accept a whitewashed role.” Skrein, who was at the center of controversy, is now the symbol of taking action against whitewashing.
While it is strange that Skrein took the role without knowing of the character’s heritage, it is possible that that element of the character was downplayed for him. Either way, his actions send a powerful message. Skrein’s hardly an up-and-comer, but he’s also not a big name star. A role in the Hellboy reboot could have given him more exposure and recognition, but he is actively choosing to do the right thing and step down. And for that, he deserves respect.
However, then our attention should turn to those actors who have not made similar choices. Whitewashing controversies have marked the cultural discourse for the past several years with such big name films and television shows as Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist, and Doctor Strange, which featured whitewashed leads. Most of these films and shows have received negative reviews; most recently, Netflix’s Death Note has been trashed by critics. And yet, Hollywood continues to whitewash major roles and titles, despite multiple films proving audiences don’t respond well to whitewashed products.
One shirt worn by Asian and Asian American actors proudly boasts “Matt & Tilda & Emma & Scarlett,” a call-out for Matt Damon (The Great Wall), Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange), Emma Stone (Aloha), and Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell). All four actors took on whitewashed roles, roles which they could have rejected. Damon, Stone, and Johansson are all A-List stars who have the option of choosing roles; Swinton might not be an A-Lister but she is an Oscar winner. They had the option of doing what Skrein is doing, but they chose the role over doing the right thing. And what’s more is that several of these projects had established characters of color, which they would have known if they’d done any research into the role. Yet they still took the role despite knowing better.
Of course, this is not to completely take the blame off of studios and directors. The decision to whitewash characters and projects should be criticized. From Exodus: Gods and Kings to Death Note, these directors, writers, and studios consciously make the decision that representation does not matter, even though audiences have shown there’s more money to be found in diverse films than the same whitewashed nonsense. Even big name franchises whitewash their leads; for example, The Hunger Games only sought white actresses for Katniss despite her character being of ambiguous ethnicity in the books. Hellboy looked to follow that trend with Skrein’s casting, but now the story has completely changed.
Skrein has set a precedent, one that should shake up the industry. He has shown that yes, you can say no to whitewashed roles and step down from them. He deserves the praise he is currently receiving because what he is doing is essentially unheard of. So far, no major whitewashed project has had an actor step down because they feel their role should be represented properly. Usually, these actors spout empty platitudes or, in Johansson’s case, ridiculous comparisons of sexism and racism that are peak white feminism.
Skrein is the first known case of an actor actively using his platform to help the fight for representation by stepping down from a major whitewashed role. And for that, he deserves praise. Hopefully, we will reach a day when white actors stepping down or choosing not to take nonwhite roles is not news, or even a day when actors of color are actually cast in these roles. But today, Skrein has struck a major blow on behalf of representation and has set a precedent that will hopefully start a new trend of actors using their platforms to advocate for positive change.
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