Ed Skrein Leaves ‘Hellboy’ Reboot, Solves Hollywood’s Whitewashing Problem with a Single Tweet

British actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool, Ajax) made waves on social media this past Tuesday, by announcing he was dropping out of Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot after learning the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, was of Asian descent in the original comics.

Skrein’s move has put Hellboy‘s producers in a tight spot. While he didn’t mention the word “whitewashing,” it’s hard to imagine they will be able to cast anyone but an Asia actor as Daimio now — a fact alluded to by the producers who released a statement later the same day.

Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this.  We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.

That’s great, but it is worth noting that they only made this decision after casting the lily-white Skrein, and then after Skrein publicly shamed them for doing so.

Comic-book movies have gotten it wrong more than they have gotten it right over the past decade, consistently casting white actors to play Asian characters. And some big name actors have gone along with the trend, including Tilda Swinton, playing the Tibetan Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Ben Kingsley playing the Chinese Mandarin in Iron Man 3 and Scarlett Johansson playing the Japanese Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.

Ben Daimio

There was a public backlash in each of those cases, but the filmmakers and actors involved had rationales and excuses every time, and with the possible exception of Ghost in the Shell, the controversy didn’t appear to affect the bottom line.

But with a single post, Skrein changed the calculus on whitewashing characters in the future. Instead of asking them to defend or explain their casting, the question every actor handed such a role in will be asked is now: “Why didn’t you just quit?”

Skrein is hardly a household name. Passing up the opportunity to pad his resume with a surefire hit must have been difficult for him. His next job is not guaranteed and there was a possibility that he would be branded as “difficult,” making work harder to come by in the future.

What excuse does someone like Johannson, one of the highest-paid actors in the world, have?

Full Text of the Statements from Ed Skrein and the Producers of Hellboy

Ed Skrein

Last week it was announced that I would be playing Major Ben Daimio in the upcoming HELLBOY reboot. I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage. There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right.

It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts. I feel it is important to honour and respect that. Therefore I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.

Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family. It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality.

I am sad to leave Hellboy but if this decision brings us closer to that day, it is worth it. I hope it makes a difference.

With love and hope,

Ed Skrein

Larry Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Lionsgate & Millennium

Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this.  We fully support his unselfish decision.  It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.

‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Continues Disturbing Trend of Whitewashing Asian Characters

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.

Doctor Strange by Steve Ditka
Doctor Strange by Steve Ditka

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.

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi
Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi

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.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

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.