Anyone who is hooked into film and television criticism knows the term whitewashing. Whether it is Scarlett Johansson in The Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or even Emma Stone in Aloha, whitewashing is a growing issue that is finally getting attention thanks to the ability that the internet grants to discuss hot button topics. The latest film to get caught in the firestorm of whitewashing is the new Hellboy reboot. In this upcoming film, Ed Skrein, known mainly from Game of Thrones and Deadpool, was cast as Major Ben Daimio, who is a character of Asian descent in the comic books. Many on the internet reacted strongly to this news, as this was just one more example of whitewashing. But recently, something kind of incredible happened. Ed Skrein left the role specifically because of his realization that this was problematic.
In his own words:
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 full disclosure being important in situations like this, it should be known that I am a white male, and not directly affected by whitewashing. But of course, I have immediate thoughts and reactions to this. But instead of starting with my view of things, I decided to reach out to members of the Asian-American community peripheral to the entertainment industry, as the issue of whitewashing affects this group strongly, as evidenced by the outcry within that community toward these casting decisions. What follows is a small sample of reactions from prominent voices.
Shaun Lau: Host of the Film and Social Issues Podcast, No, Totally
While I appreciate what Skrein did, I think the impact of his choice and his letter could have an enormously beneficial impact beyond this one movie and role. It’s been less than a year since film critics were very comfortable dismissing whitewashing claims against Doctor Strange in their reviews, so to get not only acknowledgement of the harm of the practice but an actual casting change means that people on the ground have done the work to be heard. This kind of validation is definitely cause for optimism, but only if the rest of Hollywood takes notice.
Jenn Fang: Founder/Editor of Reappropriate
Although those truly responsible for miscasting the Japanese American character of Major Ben Daimio are the producers and casting directors of Hellboy, Skrein should be commended for taking bold action in the face of injustice and backing away from the role. Furthermore, Skrein’s decision to withdraw through a public letter offers context for his decisions, and I applaud his acknowledgement of the problems that arise thanks to Hollywood whitewashing. We also now know that Skrein stepped aside under the expectation that a more appropriate actor be cast, and we can now look to Hellboy filmmakers to follow Skrein’s lead in doing the right thing. As Skrein also alluded, we all hope for a day when whitewashing of characters of color no longer occurs. We hope for a day when actors and characters of color are not underrepresented, and producers wouldn’t think twice about casting non-white actors in non-white roles. That day has yet to come, but when those in the industry take a strong stand against whitewashing, they bring us one step closer towards realizing a better future.
Clara Mae: Pop Culture Writer and Junior Film Editor for Women Write About Comics
I honestly surprised myself by getting emotional over Skrein’s decision to step down. Plenty of studies out of USC and UCLA have shown us that actors of color have less opportunities than white actors, and yet we still have difficulty openly discussing that. So often it feels like it’s only marginalized people who are the ones advocating for their own inclusion, and that can get really disheartening sometimes. So Skrein speaking up as an ally and publicly acknowledging Hollywood’s issues is a huge, and much appreciated, gesture. Skrein stepping down from the whitewashed role is meaningful for the same reason casting a person of color as a white character is: it’s an attempt to rectify Hollywood’s lack of diversity.
Is it enough? No. Skrein did the right thing, but there’s an entire system that allowed this to happen. We still need to advocate for more diversity, especially from the top down, because these kinds of backwards decisions are coming from the heads of the studios and the producers, and they’re clearly making decisions that are out of touch with modern audiences.
And I truly feel bad for Skrein; nobody on the production team told him the character was Asian, so not only did the brunt of the criticism fall on him when the news first hit, the onus also fell on him to apologize for the production itself. Skein showed himself to be the bigger man by stepping down, but we need to start asking why this role wasn’t written as specifically Asian to begin with.
Laura Sirikul: Entertainment Writer
When it was first announced that Ed Skrein was dropping the project, I quickly read his statement and felt really happy. Not only because Skrein did the noble thing of leaving the project and declaring the importance of diversity, but because this shows Hollywood that actors do have a choice. Skrein is not a household name. This would had been another big moment for his career, but he knew it was wrong and left it anyway. It just felt like it would take a white actor to step up and become an example of what to do in this situation because we’ve been through this situation many, many times. They never listen to us, but the guy playing the role did. Not only did he leave the role but also supported that it would go to an Asian actor. It’s hard to gauge where we go from here because it just happened and they haven’t recast the role yet. Hopefully, they’ll stay true to their word and hire an Asian, mainly Japanese American actor. But, this is a step. So many actors could have stepped down but they didn’t and Ed is an example of what should happen. Hopefully, other white actors will take note and follow in his footsteps. We still have a long way, but it’s a good step towards allyship and showing Hollywood and white actors what they should do.
Atsuko Okatsuka: Actress, Comedian, Filmmaker, Founder of Dis/orient/ed Comedy
When I first saw the headlines of Ed Skrein dropping out of ‘Hellboy,’ I immediately jumped on reading. I wanted to know what happened and was a bit weary because the headlines seemed to insinuate that he was somewhat left with no choice but to do it due to ‘criticism.’ However, it’s not until I got to reading Ed Skrein’s actual statement that I felt a sense of humanity around his decision to drop out. He began by saying he understands how important representation is to marginalized communities, and moreover, acknowledged that to neglect this responsibility would continue this trend of keeping these communities in the dark. His action is essentially what makes a person an ally: Someone of a privileged position, extending a branch and checking themselves, as well as setting an example for his colleagues and even more, to people who have more power than him. I appreciated this conscientious act. I felt a sense of relief that we were being heard and not forgotten.
Ultimately, what it did was also show that it was possible. That there aren’t some crazy secrets to Hollywood. We know it’s not easy to say no to a big studio or production, we know that the intention behind every film, every big casting decision is money. But what we did not know, was that an actor, essentially an employee of the studios, can step up and say no and the big guys, and their career not be completely destroyed from it. In fact, what he did forced Lionsgate to have to look into the mirror and issue a statement themselves. So now the ball is back in the Studio’s court to re-cast, and for now, I’m taking a quick breather. But when I get back, they better not have fucked it up.
And now for my thoughts. Most of the individuals I spoke with saw this decision as a reason for hope. Additionally, they lauded Mr. Skrein for his bold decision, as well as his reasoning. I cannot help but agree. This is a small, but infinitely important step. It should be noted that Ed Skrein is perhaps not a considered big-name actor (yet, but here’s to hoping). It can be argued that he needs this role and it could be a stepping stone for bigger projects. Instead, he made the moral decision. More importantly, he listened to the outcry instead of writing people off as social justice warriors. This is a positive step that I hope will set a precedent for other actors. They do have choices in which roles they choose. It is possible to do the right thing and stand up for people struggling for decent representation. I also want this to teach a lesson to actors so they actually research the roles before immediately saying yes. I get it, it’s a paycheck, especially in the big money comic book movie industry, but it would not have taken much effort to realize that this character was of Asian descent. My major concern is something that was mentioned in these excerpts, as well. The bottom up strategy only goes so far. In general, actors are a cog in this large system and are not in a place to change things. That responsibility lies with people with much greater power. I sincerely hope that the producers and executives see not only the original reaction to his casting, but also the kind, thankful reaction from Asians inside and outside of the Hollywood system. Ed Skrein made a difficult choice, the right choice, and he absolutely should be commended. But if this is not followed up by harder choices by those with the greatest privilege, then I fear that this stand will not matter in the long run. Ed Skrein gives us hope to latch on to, but this fight is nowhere close to being over. Will this be one of the first steps towards a better system where representation is the rule and not the exception? We shall see, but like Ed Skrein, I hope it makes a difference.
Featured Image: The Transporter Refueled; EuropaCorp