Whitewashing (Is) For Dummies
The main reason Hollywood studios whitewash movies, either by changing the race of a character or – even worse – casting a white actor as a person of color, is to appeal to the broadest possible demographic... Which is another way of saying the lowest common denominator.
When making Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott put it bluntly when he said that he simply wouldn't be able to get a big budget for his Biblical epic unless he used mainly white actors. In the end, Exodus went on to get middling reviews and underwhelming box office returns. Likewise, there was a lot of hype (and a lot of skepticism) going into Ghost in the Shell when it released this past March; instead of a Japanese lead, the film cast the decidedly Anglo Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, and also significantly downplayed the existential transhumanist themes of the original Manga and Anime in favor of a potboiler detective story with little in the way of substance or payoff, which offered noting beyond shallow lipservice to the original's grandiose philosophical Cyberpunk themes.
Sensing a pattern yet? When Hollywood seeks to adapt a foreign franchise for American audiences, the first thing it does is change it to be palatable to "mass audiences," usually by way of stripping away the themes and charm that made the original special in the first place. Part of that process involves stripping away the ethnicity of the lead characters to conform to the outdated notion that America is a white country. Major Mokoto in Ghost in the Shell is made white. Light in Death Note is made white. Gods of Egypt is about... Well, the Gods of Egypt, yet casts Scottish Gerard Butler as Set, Geoffrey Rush as Ra, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Horus.
The amount of money the Hollywood machine pumps into their would-be mega-blockbusters is oftentimes directly proportional to how dumb it makes said movie, always in an attempt to broaden the appeal. It is for the sake of "broadening the appeal" that audiences have been subjected the dumbing-down of big-budget movies. Hollywood decided to make PG-13 Expendables, Terminator, Robocop, and Alien vs Predator movies in an effort to broaden their appeal. Whitewashing is just another useless, unwanted tool used by tone-deaf studio executives to turn something unique into something less unique.
Is Netflix Just Another Studio?
At this point, it's sadly expected that anime adaptations will feature white leads and relegate Japanese cast members to superfluous side roles or wise old mentors, all the while touting their support for diversity in a shameless display of tokenism. Will the long-gestating live-action Akira remake succumb to this? It almost definitely will.
Netflix is supposed to be better than the typical Hollywood studio. They proudly proclaim that they aren't about ratings, they're more interested in generating discussion. There are lots of bold, innovative programs on the streaming giant which pride themselves on not adhering to the conventional standards of normal TV, such as Sense8, Master of None, and Dear White People, among so many others.
Netflix should be beyond capitulating to societal standards of what is and isn't mass-marketable. After all, that's why they embrace a subscription model; to broaden the horizons of their users, not to wedge themselves into the preconceived notions of viewers. If subscribers don't have to pay for each and every individual program they watch, then they'll be more inclined to make risky choices and take a chance on something new and different.
Whitewashing is a huge problem, but it's also a symptom of Hollywood's obsession with sucking the soul out of a foreign property when they adapt it for American audiences. Whitewashing is offensive towards people of color, that they have their ethnicity taken away before they can become important to the plot, unless they're one of the lucky few chosen token minorities.
Netflix has the opportunity to court enthusiasts of various niches, uniting all fans of the numerous disparate sub-genres under the Netflix umbrella. It's worked wonders with their shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their endless supply of stand-up comedy specials, and their wide variety of Netflix original movies. They should keep up the good work, and not try to curry favor with the type of person who doesn't care what they watch, as long as they can "just put something on." That type of person already has enough movies to watch on Netflix, and most of them star Adam Sandler.