A Brief Word to Hollywood Famous Person Gavin Polone on Whitewashing

25 Sep

Producer extraordinaire Gavin Polone penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter this week that espoused some views on the practice of whitewashing. He attempted to take the side of those who deplore the practice, praising Hollywood for gradually phasing out its decades-long policy of casting white actors to play non-white roles. He also warned, however, against the growing trend by whitewashing opponents of protesting any role re-written to be white, for ostensibly creative or business reasons, exemplified by Ed Skrein’s decision to take his name out of consideration for a role in the new Hellboy movie in which his character was a Japanese-American in the comic on which the movie is based. Unfortunately, the primary point Polone’s take underscores is that he doesn’t really understand entirely what the problem is with this type of whitewashing to begin with.

To break out the exact problem with Polone’s argument in a logical fashion,  let’s start at the beginning.

There are, very broadly,  three major possible applications for the term whitewashing, from narrowest to broadest.

  1. White people portraying another people of another race or ethnicity (example: Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in The King and I, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
  2. Parts originally intended as parts for one ethnicity in source material being adopted or rewritten to be played by white people (example Tilda Swinton as the originally Tibetan Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Ed Skrein in Hellboy, before he pulled out).
  3. White people cast in a role which is not rewritten or adopted but feels like it should more naturally be played by an actor of another race or ethnicity and/or shows the white person as superior to the non-white people around him or her at their own games (Matt Damon in The Great Wall, Finn Jones in Iron Fist)

The first definition is generally agreed upon by consensus in modern Hollywood, including Polone, even though there are still examples of it occurring in modern TV and movies, like Emma Stone in Aloha and Joe Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an episode of Urban Myths.  There are certainly lots of very thorny specifics on the edges of this broad definition, that Polone brings up, even though he tries to use that otherwise well-made point to distract from the errors in his logic regarding the second definition. What are the range of races and ethnicities that can play other specific races and ethnicities and when exactly it is okay? We can all agree that Joe Fiennes shouldn’t be playing Michael Jackson; but is it okay for, as Polone mentions, Randall Park to be playing a Taiwanese-American on Fresh Off the Boat? There are very complicated non-obvious questions on which thousands of words can be written, and which likely depend on the specifics of roles, but it’s mostly the second definition which troubles Polone in his post and which I want to spend time talking about. His point about the complications of that first definition is accurate but a smokescreen to the weaknesses in his larger point.

This second definition is where I think the battle in Hollywood currently really lies and where Polone shows he doesn’t really understand the reasons why whitewashing is so problematic, of which there are, very broadly, three.

  1. White actors portraying characters of other races or ethnicities perpetrates racist stereotypes and offensively represents the races and ethnicities being depicted.
  2. Actors of certain races and ethnic groups are underrepresented relative to their general population, and whitewashing makes it more difficult for people of those races and ethnicities to get work
  3. Casting contributes to a white-as-default mentality, reinforcing a notion that whites are more important, and makes it more difficult for people of underrepresented races and ethnicities to see more varied and better portrayals of their own race and ethnicity on screen.

Polone understands the first rationale well, and makes his argument against the first definition to whitewashing above using his understanding of that point. He doesn’t obviously understand how important the second point is.

Polone uses a set of arguments gradualists have used for years in every similar civil rights struggle. They all essentially agree with the cruasers’ righteous goals, they say, but they have to practical about it. No one can expect the people who make these decisions to change overnight, and the radicals are in fact hurting the cause by advocating too strongly and not letting Hollywood advance at its own pace, which might cause an accidental backlash.

He uses a couple of examples of when perceived second definition white washing should be acceptable and why, primarily because of understandable, in his mind, box office concerns. The reasons, however contradict one another.

We shouldn’t get riled because Marvel changed the Ancient One, because it’s merely a supporting character. Well, on the other hand, we should understand why Marvel had to change the main character in Ghost in the Shell, they needed a star.  Polone tries to have it both ways, that we both shouldn’t get upset about losing a supporting character, but can’t realistically hope for an Asian star. Polone tries to excuse the Ancient One decision due to a very specific set of concerns regarding the politics between China and Tibet, but looking at the second rationale above why white washing is bad, could have led to casting of a different Asian nationality aside from Tibetan if that was an unsolvable issue. Not to mention, the self-perpetuating logic that if we need a star, we have to choose from the existing pool of largely white stars – if Asian-Americans don’t have a chance to star in movies, they’ll never thus be considered stars worthy of that star billing.

We should understand why Hollywood makes certain decisions for financial reasons, Polone says, but by replacing Ed Skrein with Daniel Dae Kim, he think in that particular case helps Hellboy from a marketing perspective. The only reason for him to make that caveat that I can think of is to attempt to turn the argument of anti-whitewashers on its head; the writers and directors behind Hellboy are just trying to make the best movie creatively, and Ed Skrein was their choice to do that, and they should be granted that creative freedom.

That argument doesn’t wash though because it gets at exactly what Polone doesn’t get about the problem with whitewashing.  Even if not for ostensible box office reasons, even if subconsciously, predominantly white producers, directors, writers, and lots of otherwise well-meaning people behind the scenes, tend to be more likely to cast white people, for psychological reasons that are above my pay grade. By forcing their hand, at the very least to stick with characters that aren’t white in their original incarnation, we’re forcing them to look outside of their narrow view and give actors chances to play parts they aren’t gifted with nearly as often. I like Ed Skrein as an actor but I hardly think Polone could or would make an argument that Skrein was simply the only actor who could do justice to that part. There are many many actors the movie could choose from, whether we wanted to limit it to Japanese-Americans, or other Asian-Americans or not, which again is a far different and more complicated question, and those are actors that are not getting chances in a predominantly white industry.

The argument that the protests aren’t practical doesn’t hold water either. I’m all for practical, and often the problems I have with politics on my liberal side of the aisle that I disagree with are due to their relative practicality, but opponents of that second type of whitewashing on being very practical. They’re attempting to change the calculus for both actors taking whitewashed parts by both punishing actors who take them with public shaming, and rewarding them, as seen with Ed Skrein for declining them. Supporters believe that movies that are less whitewashed will, if released, do perfectly well at the box office, and Polone didn’t provide any evidence otherwise – not to claim this is any type of meaningful sample, but Ghost in the Shell, Polone’s choice of a movie that needed an established star, was a flop regardless, and does he really think Dr. Strange would not have succeeded without Swinton? He contends Hollywood simply won’t make these movies, and there’s realistic concern that will happen, but will it happen with every single movie – will Hollywood never make another movie with a non-white character again? I doubt it; this is a long run gambit, and I would argue the price of losing a few likely mediocre adaptions due to public pressure in the meantime is worth the progress towards an end goal of more representative casting.

One Response to “A Brief Word to Hollywood Famous Person Gavin Polone on Whitewashing”

  1. The Boozy Greek October 27, 2017 at 9:49 am #

    “Joe Fiennes”

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