Thursday, March 5, 2015

Scarlett Johansson, Ghost in the Shell, and Casting Outside of the Lines - by Jerry Chandler

Note- There’s a term, whitewashing, that’s being used a lot in these discussions. I won’t use it here other than towards the very end in large part because I think that it’s utter rubbish as a term. A part of why I do is that the term itself, and the usage of it by many, is misleading and disingenuous. The very term, and often the usage of it, implies that this act, what is basically nothing more than the same recasting of roles in adaptations, reboots, and remakes that occurs everywhere movies are made, is something limited to Hollywood or to the act of casting white actors into roles originated in foreign countries or with characters that were not white in their original form. This is not true by any measure as will be addressed below.

There’s actually been a very interesting bit of fan rage going on across the information superhighway recently. There’s a vocal group of fans starting petitions to get Scarlett Johansson removed from the lead role in the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. To be honest, I’m really not sure where I would fall in this debate, but only because, at this early stage of the game there are some details about the film that are more rumor than fact. Some things that might make the choice of Johansson in the role either fine and dandy or painfully bad are not yet truly set in stone, but I’ll address this issue later.

However, on at least one level I can understand where DreamWorks is coming from with this casting decision. Ghost in the Shell as a live action film is likely going to be budgeted well upwards of the $200 million range. Disney’s John Carter, a film that likely had less high end FX shots than Ghost in the Shell would need, had a budget of $250 million. Even The Lone Ranger was budgeted in the $215 million range. After taking losses in 2014, with some losses in their animation studio leading to the announcement of a write-down, restructuring, layoffs, cancelled projects, and the sale of property in order to cover some of the costs, DreamWorks is likely sitting in a position where they want to play some things as absolutely safe as they can.

Now, one might argue that adapting a cult favorite foreign property into a big budgeted live-action film might not be “playing it safe” by any means, and you would likely be right. However, having chosen to go down that path, they’re looking at hedging their bets through casting, and they’re doing that by casting one of the more, if not the most, bankable female stars they can get to lead the film. Granted, big name casting isn’t a guarantee for box office success. Big names star in films that bomb all of the time, and even Tom Cruise’s name didn’t keep Edge of Tomorrow (based on the Japanese novel and manga All You Need is Kill despite the lack of huge uproar about casting Cruise as Keiji Kiriya turned Cage) from failing to make its budget back at the domestic box office. But if DreamWorks wants to roll the dice on the film, you have to expect them to look to casting choices that will draw in the casual genre fan unfamiliar with the original work as well star power that draws well with both the male and female demographic. Right now, throughout all of Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson pretty much tops that list out of the available actresses who might be seen by the powers that be as suitable for that role.

So, yeah, it probably has a lot to do with the money. You can rattle off a list of reasons why this isn’t acceptable, from moral, ethical, politically correct, or what have you; when it comes to studios risking hundreds of millions of dollars on a production budget, they’re going to play it as safe as they can in an attempt to not lose money at the box office. And, as such, I can understand the mindset of the casting directors and the bean counters behind the scenes to want to look towards the most bankable stars they can find.

But how do I feel on a personal level about casting roles outside of their original ethnicities? The only honest answer that I can give you is that it depends on the role, depends on the adaptation, and depends on what they’re doing with the other roles in the project. It’s pretty much a case by case thing.

On some level I feel like a character that’s become culturally iconic is probably not the character to mess about with when casting for it in the country that it’s become so iconic in. There’s been talk in recent weeks about the next reboot of Spider-Man launching a black Spider-Man onto the big screen. Some talk is that they would introduce Miles Morales, which would be fine. Other talk is that they would reboot Peter Parker, which is less so given the culturally iconic nature of the character. Flipping that script, I would likewise think that Hollywood had lost its mind if it announced a new Shaft film with John Shaft being cast with a white actor.

But with roles that are less iconic in nature? It’s going to depend on the actor, the role, and what the story demands.

When Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall, my only thought was about what an amazing presence that would bring to the character. When Sam Jackson was cast as Nick Fury, following the lead of basically turning Nick Fury into Sam Jackson in the Ultimate Universe, I was more than willing to give it a shot since I love Jackson’s work and thought that it might make an interesting take on the character as it would be written for Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Back in 2004 (Has it really been that long?) when they rebooted Battlestar Galactica they not only swapped races with characters but swapped genders to boot. A lot of people were a little apprehensive about the changes when they were first coming out, but most of the fanbase, certainly the fanbase that ended up becoming the regular viewing audience, adapted rather quickly to the changes. Why? Because the changes made sense from a story driven level; especially with the history they had intended to have in place for Starbuck and Apollo.

Django Unchained gave us a Django that was more than just a wee bit more naturally tanned than Franco Nero, Terence Hill, Anthony Steffen, or Tony Kendall ever were while playing the role. But when you went and looked at the story that Quentin Tarantino was telling, Jamie Foxx as Django made sense. Tarantino had also changed more than just color in storytelling before. While I think that some online critics of Tarantino overplay how much of the story he borrowed from Hong Kong, there is still little doubt that some of Reservoir Dogs was borrowed from Hong Kong’s City on Fire. However, the leads changed with the change in the story’s setting.

That right there, the changing of the setting, is also something that makes a huge difference. It creates a situation where casting changes are not only likely, but probably desirable.

Years ago a little Japanese film made waves by playing here in the states. It acquired a bit of a positive reputation, but it was never going to be hailed as true smash hit at the American box office. As such, Seven Samurai was remade by Hollywood into The Magnificent Seven. Part of doing this remake involved moving the story from feudal Japan to the American Old West, and that required recasting. Sure, you can argue that they could have cast a bunch of Japanese cowboys to save a small town filled with Japanese townsfolk from a bunch of Japanese bad guys, but that might have been a tougher, and somewhat stranger, pitch to both studio heads and to potential audiences. Moving the story to the Old West combined with the size of the overall cast pretty much required that the roles not be filled with Japanese actors even if they had been available to do it at the time.

Likewise, moving forward roughly 50 years, The Departed would have been far less of a commercial success than it was had the casting stayed along the lines of the original casting. Look, it makes absolute sense to have an all Chinese cast for a cops and gangsters story set in Hong Kong, but it makes much less sense to do so when the setting is Boston. Infernal Affairs is a great film trilogy, and I love the thing, but it was never going to be a smash hit in American theaters. Plus, I’m happy since having both Infernal Affairs and The Departed in my DVD collection gives me, as it does with Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, different takes and different points of view on the same story. Both are enjoyable, and both have their individual strengths.

By the way, this is also not a one-way street by any means, and it’s certainly not an exclusively American thing. Periodically, other film studios in other countries get the rights to do adaptations of American films and television or choose to do stories based on stories not originally from their homeland. When they do, the casting isn’t based on staying true to the original creations. One of my favorite examples of that, because I love the film more than the original American film, is a film called Miracles.

Jackie Chan was a fan of 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles. He wanted to do his own version of it, so Miracles, also known as Mr. Canton and Lady Rose here in the states, was born in 1989. It’s absolutely Pocketful of Miracles. If you’ve ever seen the one, you’d recognize it in the other. The only real differences are the locations that the films are set in and the trademark Jackie Chan action moments found in Miracles that are obviously absent from the original.

Getting weirdly into “copy of a copy” territory, Miracles, rather than Pocketful of Miracles, then went on to become the inspiration for a later film out of India. Singh Is Kinng starring Akshay Kumar, of either Chandni Chowk to China fame or infamy depending on whom you talk to, and Katrina Kaif was released in 2008, changing the setting and the characters’ backgrounds for a new audience.

Pygmalion was written by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, first performed in London in 1912 with an English cast. If you don’t know the story by that name, you might know it as the 1964 film My Fair Lady. However, if you were in China or Hong Kong in 1988 and a big fan of Chow Yun-Fat, you might know it instead as Gong zi duo qing (The Greatest Lover in English subtitled releases) with the big change being that Chow Yun-Fat is the street rogue who gets taught how to blend in with high society by Anita Mui’s character. Well, that and it’s set in Hong Kong with an all Chinese cast. It’s also a fun little film. I’d recommend it if you ever come across the chance to see it.

But, I hear some of you saying, Ghost in the Shell isn’t like these other films. They’re not changing Ghost in the Shell in the same way. They’re doing a direct adaptation of it. This isn’t calling All You Need is Kill by the name Edge of Tomorrow while not openly acknowledging the source material in most of the promotional hoopla. They’re not moving the setting from one country to another. Well, yes and no.

Right now we don’t really know what they’re doing with it. Yeah, it’s going to be called Ghost in the Shell, but we really know little else with 100% certainty. Besides, Seven Samurai was actually called The Magnificent Seven in its early US releases. The name was changed after the decision to make the remake was a go, so… For all we know, the Scarlett Johansson starring Ghost in the Shell could ultimately be set somewhere other than Japan. That would make a difference just as changing the character’s name might.

Changing such things for an American film franchise would also make sense in the same way that changing Spider-Man’s alter ego to motorcycle racer Takuya Yamashiro when setting their Spider-Man television show in Japan. Although nothing in a Ghost of the Shell adaptation is going to come anywhere close to equaling the goofy fun of seeing Spider-man call forth his super robot to do battle with giant bug monsters while riding into action in a car that would give Speed Racer a serious case of car envy.

No, I’m absolutely not joking about any of that.

And in this case you also have a comparable property. Spider-Man is more iconic in America than Ghost in the Shell’s characters likely are in Japan. For that matter, Spider-Man may have once been a more iconic character in Japan than the Ghost in the Shell characters at various points of their existence. But when time came to do Spider-Man in Japan, they made their own version for their own audience, and they did it in part to give the Japanese audiences more familiar characters, daily customs, and settings than they would have had with Peter Parker in New York or Peter Parker suddenly moving to Japan.

Now, if the film is ultimately set in Japan and most of the characters that are not lead characters are played by Asians actors, then, yeah, I personally think that this would be a dumbass casting move. If the role is played by Johansson and the character’s name is unchanged, then, yeah, this comes across as a dumb idea. It’s about the same level of dumbass move that we saw with the on again, off again Akira adaptation news over the last year. I’ll be hitting on this point in a bit more detail below. But an all American cast, or even an international cast, for a film set outside of Japan doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.

Can this casting still be problematic with fictional characters from fictional worlds getting that treatment? Yes, it can be when it’s done either in the manner I touched on above, the main lead is cast white while most everyone else remains as was, or when you do things like we saw with the Last Airbender. Taking a fictional animated world and moving it to a live action fictional world means that you’re not doing the same thing as moving a story’s setting from Kyoto to New York. You can keep all the characters as they were, or you can change them all. However, casting most or all of the lead cast of good guys with Caucasian actors while leaving all of your villain roles to be cast as they were in the cartoon was a bad move. Well, either that or a really weird tribute to classic films of Toho.

Now, are there cases where recasting along these lines is clearly problematic? Absolutely there are, especially in cases where Hollywood throws around the tag of “based on a true story.”

One such example would be Mena Suvari playing a character in Stuck who was actually a black woman in real life. Likewise, Jennifer Connolly in A Beautiful Mind playing a character who in real life was from El Salvador was probably less than a bright casting moving. One of my favorite examples of Hollywood being stupid with casting like this was the film 21. It was based on the story of real life MIT students who got together and used their rather impressive brains to break the house in a number of casinos. It was a great story concept that was ready made for film. It was not so great that Hollywood saw fit to change the real life Asian students into white kids.

21 also had an aspect about it that’s been seen in other projects in recent years that I do find a stupid move on the part of Hollywood, if not also somewhat insulting to most viewers. 21 didn’t actually recast all the roles from Asian to white, they just recast the lead roles to white, and cast Asian actors in what would essentially become the minor roles. One reason occasionally floated for this practice is to give the “mainstream audience” characters that they can identify with. It even pops up in fantasy settings as evidenced by Hallmark’s adaptation for NBC/Sci-Fi of The Legend of the Monkey King back in 2001. The Lost Empire cast a number of Asian actors in various roles throughout the series. They just didn’t do that with the lead. While I don’t believe anyone official has admitted to it, again, a lot of the talk was that the casting choice was to give the “American audience” a character in the story that they could identify with or relate to.

Look, a whole lot of geeks and I grew up watching things like The Space Giants, watching and rewatching every Godzilla movie we could lay our hands on, and watching every bad kung fu film that played on cable. We never had a problem identifying with or relating to the characters. One of the most popular franchises in genre history is Star Trek. Over the decades, fans have had zero problems relating to or identifying with characters that were alien, some fairly less than human looking, and artificial life forms. Pretty much everyone grew up watching the cartoon adventures of various anthropomorphic animals while showing zero signs not being able to follow along. And, hey, Wall-E, a story about a beat up little robot, managed to connect well enough with adults and children that it took in around $224 million domestic.

Hollywood, I get the idea of hedging your bets by casting bankable stars when risking insanely stupid amounts of money on a budget. I really do. But this whole deal of thinking that most of your potential audience is too stupid to get a film or relate to stories that are driven by basic human elements unless, in amongst a sea of other colors and ethnicities, you give us the token American/white lead character is insulting. Your audiences have shown themselves capable of relating to aliens, robots, and talking cars for crying out loud. Reboot fully, or go all in on keeping true to the source material.


By and large, certainly for the average fictional character that’s not of some level of iconic status in pop culture, this really shouldn’t be something that matters all that much. Do some people feel that it matters greatly? Yes, but it would be easier to take seriously many of the loudest voices out there who declare that it matters so greatly if they weren’t absolute hypocrites about the issue.

See, the people that complain the loudest and the longest about casting choices like this, calling it a “whitewashing” of the original characters, are often the same people who, when the casting or recasting goes the other way, trumpet the great, enlightened age we live in where “colorblind casting” is a wonderful thing and a growing trend.

I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. Casting outside of the race of the original character cannot be held up as a great and wonderful thing, as the wonders of colorblind casting, only so long as the original character was white, but then be demonized as Hollywood racism and whitewashing when it goes in the other direction.

When corners of the internet erupt in anger (despite the endorsement by the actual person being played) over the news of Angelina Jolie being cast to play the real life Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, but the same quarters are absolutely dead silent when in the same time period Halle Berry is announced to play Tierney Cahill in the film (now presumed abandoned as a project) Class Act, your hypocrisy is showing.

When both Sgt. Emil Foley and Gideon Oliver are played by Lou Gossett Jr…
When James T. West is played by Will Smith…
When Red is played by Morgan Freeman…
When Harvey dent is played by Billy Dee Williams…
When The Kingpin is played by Michael Clark Duncan…
When both Joyhn W. Creasy and Ben Marco are played by Denzel Washington…
When Denzel Washington is announced as being cast to be a lead role in the Magnificent Seven remake…
When Agent Jay is played by Will Smith…
When Jackie Burke (Jackie Brown) is played by Pam Greir…
When Cinderella is played by Brandy Norwood…
When Nick Fury is played by Sam Jackson…
When Kojak is played by Ving Rhames…
When Heimdall is played by Idris Elba…
When Michael B. Jordan is cast to play Johnny Storm…
When Annie is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and the Daddy Warbucks role is played by Jamie Foxx…
When Django is played by Jamie Foxx…
When the entire lead cast of Steel Magnolias is switched from white to black…
(I could keep going, but I won’t.)

and your response is either silence or discussing how great colorblind casting is, it’s hard to take you seriously when you want to cry foul about a casting change you don’t personally approve of. Taking your complaints seriously becomes even harder when, even as you join the chorus demanding that Johansson be removed from Ghost in the Shell and screaming about the evils of whitewashing, you’re also on the net talking about how great it would be if the rumors of Idris Elba being tapped to play James Bond were true.

The same should be said to those who are just as vocal, and occasionally more vulgar, who represent the other side of the coin. If you were out there on the worldwide web complaining about political correctness gone mad over a pretty minor character like Heimdall being played by Idris Elba, but you’re absolutely fine and dandy with Johansson as the lead in Ghost in the Shell… Your hypocrisy, very likely amongst other things, is showing pretty damned clearly as well.

Look, by and large, most of the movie-going audience doesn’t care one way or the other about this kind of thing ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Most people paying their hard earned money for a ticket or sitting down in front of the TV after a hard day’s work only care about whether the movie or TV show is entertaining or not. The only time they’re going to have any sort of “WTF” moment is if a character that’s truly iconic gets a sudden makeover, and, sorry, but none of the characters in Ghost in the Shell truly qualify as iconic. Hell, they’re likely not even going to be known characters to most of the audience that will end up paying to see it in theaters.

And most of fandom simply doesn’t care enough to really notice it most of the time either. My only reaction to any of the examples above was nothing more than thinking that some of those casting choices could be kind of cool depending on how they decided to play the roles, and that was purely on the basis of the actor chosen rather than their skin color. Okay, I didn’t have that reaction to Annie, Cinderella, and Steel Magnolias, but only because I really could have cared less about those projects, but you get the idea.

If you want to spend most of your time seeing and obsessing about race whenever you turn on the TV, no matter which side of the coin you wish to do that from, that’s your problem. Most people out there don’t want to live that way. It’s not an issue to most people until you make it an issue.

There are certainly grounds for discussion as to why something like this can be a bad thing in some cases though. However, don’t expect to be taken all that seriously in that discussion if rather than holding the position that characters created and conceived as ‘X’ should always remain ‘X’ no matter the remake, reboot, reimagining, or reason proposed for a change you come to the discussion declaring that such changes are good, forward thinking, and beneficial to all mankind so long as you approve of them, but any changes that don’t carry your seal of approval are evil, repugnant, and racist. You don’t get to have it both ways, you don’t get to define the terms and make the rules, and you don’t get to declare that any position not in line with yours, even a happy middle ground position, is still 100% wrong VS your 100% rightness. All you’re going to do is turn people off, and, most likely, prevent anyone from seeking common ground with you on the issue.

Beyond that, this is a movie we’re talking about. This is a work of fiction that’s supposed to entertain us and be enjoyed. This is not politics. This is not some social justice crime. It’s a movie, and, being a movie, you should treat this like any other movie. If you don’t want to see it because you don’t like the casting if it or what they do with the story, don’t pay for a ticket to see it. It’s really that simple. 

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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