English actor Ed Skrein (Game of Thrones) took to Twitter on Monday afternoon with a long and important message regarding his recent casting in the upcoming Hellboy reboot. When Skrein was announced for Captain Ben Daimio, the news was met with a wave of controversy. Yet another white actor playing an Asian-American character? Hollywood, please stop.
But in an unprecedented move, Skrein announced that he’s stepping down from the role.
It’s a good move. Of course, there’s nothing stopping the casting director from picking another white dude to fill Ed Skrein’s shoes. However, the fact that he stepped down is still huge. Whitewashing is a gross phenomenon in film and TV that, frankly, can go die in a fire. Skrein’s decision to step down from Hellboy feels like a small step in the right direction, but something to celebrate nonetheless.
Netflix released its adaptation of Death Note last week after critics railed against its whitewashing for months. The film creators claimed race wasn’t a factor in casting, but transporting Japanese manga to the U.S. and then casting all white people is… not a good look.
When Scarlett Johansson was cast in Ghost In the Shell and the scriptwriters jumped through all kinds of hoops to make the choice seem “plot-relevant,” it just made Johansson’s casting seem even more racist. Hollywood Reporter asked four Japanese actresses their thoughts on the film and some of their responses are absolutely devastating.
And last year, when Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, she exchanged emails with Korean-American comedian and activist Margaret Cho, seemingly looking for absolution after taking the part. Had Swinton taken Ed Skrein’s route and simply stepped down, Cho might not have dragged her name through the mud.
Let’s not even talk about Iron Fist, since that’s a whole other mess.
Now, consider: all of that is just in the last two years. Remember the live action Avatar: The Last Airbender? What about Speed Racer or DragonBall: The Last Evolution? What about the blatant yellowface in Cloud Atlas? This is a persistent and disturbing trend. Not only do these movies not sell, they are mired in controversy and no one in Hollywood ever seems to think, “Hmm. Maybe we should try a different approach.” Say, for example, casting Japanese actors to play Japanese roles?
Certainly, it’s not just on actors to take responsibility. Skrein stepping down from Hellboy is worthy of praise, but why did the casting director choose a white man in the first place? Were there no Japanese actors available the day of auditions? I doubt it.
What’s more likely is that Ed Skrein was cast because he’s white. Captain Ben Daimio can only control the demon inside him through a mystical shaman. But sure, let’s cast an attractive white guy who’s pretty popular on the racially-messy Game of Thrones. Let’s ignore Daimio’s entire cultural heritage. After all, Marvel did it with Doctor Strange and that made $677.7 million at the box office. Hellboy can survive the controversy. Hellboy is a Dark Horse staple.
The only way whitewashing is ever going to be taken seriously as a critique — and hopefully, eventually, eliminated completely — is if more people like Ed Skrein either a) don’t go for roles that aren’t for them or b) refuse these roles if they’re offered. Allies are important. And the steady erasure of Asian characters on screen won’t stop unless everyone — including the white people Hollywood is so desperate to center — steps the fuck up and says, “Enough is enough.”