14-year-old Italian-America Michael Barbieri has been cast in the the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, and if Internet reports are to believed, he is either playing the character of Miles Morales’ best friend Ganke from Ultimate Spider-Man or a character based on Ganke. It’s worth noting at this point that Ganke’s full name is “Ganke Lee” and that in the comics he is a heavyset Korean-American.
This follows on the heels of the decision to recast the traditionally Tibetan “Ancient One” in Doctor Strange with Tilda Swinton, who is possibly the whitest person on the planet. (I mean that in a good way. Honest.) The official reasoning was that this was a different Ancient One who happened to be Celtic. That’s fine, but the net result is still that they took a role that has been Asian for more than 50 years and reframed it to give it to a white actor — albeit a very talented white actor.
It is also worth noting that there is a fairly compelling theory that Dr. Strange himself was supposed to be Asian. Steve Ditko drew him with slanted, heavy-lidded eyes for the first few issues until someone decided he was definitively white, then those features vanished.
Similarly, it was announced that the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in the big-budget live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime classic Ghost in the Shell would be played by Scarlett Johansson. Reports surfaced that the studio asked for screen tests of digital technology that would allow them to make Johansson look “more Asian” on screen after the fact. The studio denied those rumors, but currently it is speculated that she will be simply referred to as “Major” to avoid the awkwardness of having a Danish-Polish-Russian American actress answer to a very Japanese name. It’s a lot of work to try and make Johansson fit the part, but producers opted to go that route, instead of, ya know, casting an actual Japanese woman.
White actress Mackenzie Davis played Korean American Mindy Park in The Martian. Before that Emma Stone was cast as part-Asian, part-Hawaiian Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s flop Aloha. The entire cast of Asian American characters from the real-life story of 21 were replaced by white actors. Most of the cast of The Last Airbender movie were recast as white. The list goes on and on — back to Mickey Rooney’s incredibly racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and beyond.
The standard justification that Hollywood executives use to rationalize this behavior away is to state that there are no Asian actors who are large enough box-office draws to risk putting them in a major role. Hollywood has a tendency to recast even minor Asian roles like Mindy Park as white
Add that to the reluctance to cast Asian actors in roles unless they are specifically written as Asian, and Asian actors have very limited opportunities to prove that they are capable of opening a film. Someone needs to take a risk and cast Constance Wu as the lead in a romantic comedy. I’ll be there opening night. I promise.
Whether you are casting a white person to play an Asian character or rewriting an Asian character to make it white, you are doing a disservice to an minority population that is horribly underrepresented in Hollywood. The last time an Asian American was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress was Merle Oberon in 1935 — an woman who lied her entire life and told people she was from Tasmania to hide her Indian heritage. No one knew she was Asian.
Something needs to change. As it stands right now, Asian actors can’t even get cast as Asian characters in Hollywood. At the very least Hollywood should have the decency to act ashamed.