Casting of movies is a difficult and important process. I’ve been seeing one particular casting raising discussion recently, Scarlett Johansson as Makoto Kusanagi in Ghost of the Shell. Honestly there are a lot of good points out there, “They need to give Asian roles to Asian Actors!” ” Race shouldn’t matter let her play the asian woman!” “The Major is a a full cyborg. A human brain in a completely robotic body and therefore can look anyway they want her to!” Along with any other number of arguments that are basically based in one of those three generalizations. However racial changes in characters tend to happen through out our long history of American Film.
Lets start with Harvey Dent, no not Aaron Eckhart’s spectacular portrayal of a District Attorney candidate twisted by the Joker, the death of the love of his life and horrible scarring to become a short-lived villain. Nor am I talking about Tommy Lee Jones’ memorably comic book portrayal in Batman Forever. I’m talking about Billy Dee Williams playing Harvey Dent in 1989’s Batman. Granted Billy D’s run as Harvey Dent never got to see a transformation to Two Face and was short-lived, however during the time it was something to be like “Hey that’s pretty cool, they got a black guy playing a major comic book character in a movie.” Granted at the time I watched this movie for the first time I was 4 and only knew that Batman was cool and had no idea who Billy Dee Williams or Harvey Dent were. Yet moving on to Michael Clarke Duncan’s role as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, in 2003’s Daredevil. I actually was at first taken aback by a black Kingpin, but then I was sitting there a young university freshman and thought “Hey that’s kinda cool, they’ve got an African-American dude playing a major comic book character in a movie.” And now we move on to the most recent Johnny Storm, which got me saying “If they were going to make him black, why didn’t they go full blast and make his sister black too? Are they going to address that at all?” Which goes to say that racial role switching in movies can be fine in the right light, however once someone goes white we go into an uproar?
Well yes we do. It’s an odd argument that’s about race but not about race at the same time. It’s about race in the sense that “Hey that role is meant to be an Asian person! Not Emma Stone/ Scarlet Johansson/Chris Evans/Joseph Gordon Levitt/White Actor Guy!” Which seems hypocritical when many find that it was a neat choice in that “Hey its kinda cool that [insert white character] is being played by Billy Dee Williams/Michael Clarke Duncan/Michael B. Jordan.” However, its more about racial opportunity. It’s great that Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Joseph Gordon Levitt and White Actor Guy are getting work. I personally incredibly enjoy their acting and want to see them in many more films, shows, etc. to come (except White Actor Guy he stole my girlfriend.) However its hard to say that its difficult for them to find work and have their names known. That kind of goes more for actors like Rinko Kikuchi, Perry Shen, Sung Kang and Osric Chau. There are many who know exactly who those people are, and there are many that don’t. Sung Kang probably the most popularly known for his portrayal of Han in the Fast and Furious movies as well as his origins in Better Luck Tomorrow which starred Perry Shen and featured John Cho. There are many more actors out there on lists like Top 40 Asian Actors Under 40 to Watch for in Hollywood that may never need to be watched for in Hollywood because they will never get casted for more than a supporting role. Granted we are making strides, Fresh off the Boat definitely would not work with an all white cast. That would be weird. However its more of a deeper issue.
The opportunity to play those roles never come up because the embodiment of film lets call it “Hollywood” is playing safe. It is hard to argue with the fact that the film industry is a business. The commodity being the faces that are displayed on the screen. They’re playing to a larger demographic by casting the people they believe will pull in movie goers. Its great that many people out there argue “They’re humans, I don’t see the issue with casting a person in a role for a person no matter what race.” However that doesn’t track when Hollywood is not an equal opportunity employer. Getting into what we’re seeing on TV and on screens everywhere, we get into who we can identify with ever so slightly. Casting non-Asian actors for Asian roles says something to many people out there, not everyone but, it says we’re not comfortable seeing your face on these roles. In fact its the same for any race, not just Asians. In a country as diverse as ours, a cultural melting pot. We should be able to see a good representation of that in our media and allow opportunities for people of X race to play leading X race role in Y movie. That’s the real issue at hand.
But Markers! You mentioned Akira and Attack on Titan in the title! I’m glad you mentioned that [insert your name here]! You may be wondering why I mentioned Joseph Gordon Levitt and Chris Evans! It’s because in once slated American Live Action take on the popular anime Akira, Chris Evans and Joseph Gordon Levitt were portrayed in concept art as none other than Tetsuo and Kaneda. Although there is the fair argument that Motoko Kusanagi aka The Major is a cyborg and can look anyway she damn well pleases. Also a bigger question would be, would Motoko Kusanagi rather looks like herself prior to becoming completely robotic or is Scarlett Johansson her ideal look? That’s something for everyone to chew on in their own mind buckets. In Akira, Tetsuo and Kaneda are not cyborgs, so would this sci-fi biker punk drama set in Neo Tokyo be changed to Jeremy and Jackson set in Neo San Francisco just to accommodate the new casting? Or would everyone be content with another Allison Ng (Emma Stone’s role in Aloha)?
Another title that is being called into question is Attack on Titan. No, there is no American version of Attack on Titan in production with an all white cast. Which actually would be appropriate seeing as the majority of the roles would be European with Eren Jaeger, Armin Arlert, Reiner Braun, Annie Leonhart, etc. being a few names of characters to be filled. In fact the closest thing to someone Asian in the movie would be Mikasa Ackerman, the basically last Asian on the planet. It’s a major part of her backstory. It’s a point I’ve seen come around that “Hey, if they can all be Asian, Motoko Kusanagi can be white.” That in general is different. Seeing as Attack on Titan is made in Japan, where there really isn’t a huge diversity in their culture, casting an all white Japanese speaking cast in Japan could be incredibly difficult, time-consuming and ultimately futile endeavor for Live Action Japanese studios to undertake. Honestly I have my hang ups with that also. Although I border on weeaboo grounds, love Japanese music, anime, etc. my first question was “Weren’t they all white?” then I took a big step back and realized how different Hollywood and Japan differ in film making, resources and acting pool.
TLDR; Acting opportunities for minorities are important to get their names and faces out there to say “It’s okay to be x race.” small time white roles have been taken here and there. However white actors have way more opportunities than those of other races, why take away the few opportunities minorities have?