Whitewashing has a long history in Hollywood. During the early days of the film industry, the Hays Code, implemented in the 1930s, prevented interracial kissing on-screen, on the basis that such a sight was indecent. Therefore, in the rare cases where roles were available for actors of color, the need for them would be removed and excused in part through the need to adhere to the code. This infamously happened with the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth, a drama about a Chinese family's life in the lead up to World War 1. Anna May Wong, the most prominent Asian actress of the era, desperately wanted the lead in the movie, but was told that, since the white actor Paul Muni had been cast as the protagonist's husband, she was unsuitable for the role. Luise Rainer, who was ultimately cast, won the Best Actress Oscar for her work.
Nowadays the industry doesn't tend to delve into full blown yellow-face, but it still treats the whitewashing of Asian roles and characters as a necessity of doing business. That’s why so few people were surprised when Ed Skrein was announced as the latest cast member of the Hellboy reboot in the role of Ben Daimio. Daimio, a prominent figure in Mike Mignola's comic books, is a Japanese American member of the B.P.R.D. born into a military family. Hearing that Skrein, best known for playing Daario Naharis in Season 3 of Game of Thrones, would play the role was another disheartening reminder of how the industry viewed Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation. The backlash was intense, but the fact that so few people were genuinely surprised by the casting speaks volumes.
Then something interesting happened. Ed Skrein pulled out of the role and wrote a strong, detailed statement explaining his decision. He noted that he would be withdrawing from the film "so the role can be cast appropriately", and that "it is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts."
Skrein’s decision was met with wide acclaim and support, particularly from AAPI actors like Star Trek’s John Cho and Chloe Bennet from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., who has talked openly of her struggles to be cast in Hollywood when she worked under her birth name of Chloe Wang. This was probably a decision that weighed heavily on Skrein - dropping out of a prominent project that would be good for his career would be one his agent may have had some feelings on - and the chances are if he had stayed in that role that the industry would have been fine with that. Yet Skrein made a tough call that was ultimately the right one, and it's won him a legion of new fans.
It has also thrown down the gauntlet - not only to the film industry, but specifically to the producers of Hellboy: There’s no excuse not to cast the role of Ben Daimio properly. His statement feels all the sharper given the Twitter comments of one of Hellboy’s producers, Christa Campbell, who defended Skrein’s initial casting by claiming “we are all one. We don’t see colors or race.”
This fantastical claim of a color-blind meritocracy in Hollywood rears its ugly head frequently when whitewashing takes place. The assumption with this train of thought is that talent will win above all else, despite what the statistics say, and it’s just a coincidence that the right choice always happens to be a white actor. No excuse is ever given for the implication that white people are somehow more experienced and talented to play characters rooted in Asian experiences. When Allison Ng talks proudly of her Chinese and Hawaiian heritage in Aloha, it never rings true because those words are coming from the mouth of the very white Emma Stone.