Actors in “yellowface” and “blackface” may sound like horrors of a bygone century but we dig deeper into the prevalent issue of whitewashing in Hollywood.
By: Adelena Oh
With the active promotion of racial equality and respect on the Internet, one would think Tinseltown’s directors and producers would have learnt the importance of accurately portraying people of color (POCs).
But doubts arose when fresh blockbusters like Marvel’s Doctor Strange and the upcoming live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell cast Caucasian actors and actresses depicting characters that were originally of various Asian descents.
“People are more vocal now,” says Eileen Teh, 20, a film student who had graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic. “The studios are listening and are trying to get more racially diverse casts. However, I feel like when they choose an Asian person, it’s still always stereotyped.
“There are some TV shows, such as Fresh Off the Boat, where the main cast are Chinese-American immigrants. It was based off a book of the same name and the author, Eddie Huang, hates the show and refuses to watch it as he says it misrepresented everything he wrote and his beliefs,” she says.
Such cases have recently hit closer to home than ever, with the bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan being adapted into a Hollywood film produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Chinese-American director Jon M. Chu.
The book revolves around an American-born Chinese protagonist who follows her rich Singaporean boyfriend back to his hometown for a friend’s wedding. The story also depicts many aspects of the life of wealthy families in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
During early development of the film’s script, there had been talks of whitewashing the main character and making her Caucasian, which had caused an uproar amongst fans.
“I have faith in the talent pool not just of existing [American] actors, but also of actors coming out of film schools in England, in Australia, who are Asian,” said Kwan in a July 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “My hope is that there will be equal representation in terms of Singapore stars, Hong Kong stars, Asian American stars [and] mainland Chinese stars.”
At the other end of the spectrum lies Disney. A pioneer advocate for proper ethnic representation in films, the studio has shown their stand against whitewashing since their animated works from the 1990s like Pocahontas and Mulan. Native American actress Irene Bedard and Asian American actress Ming-Na Wen voiced the protagonists of the films respectively.
Such representation has carried through to present times where Disney’s latest animated film, Moana, features a Polynesian princess who is also voiced by 16-year-old Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho. Taking their stance a step further, the studio has also called for a fully Chinese cast in their upcoming live-action remake of Mulan.
“We consulted archaeologists, anthropologists, fishermen, elders, linguists, dancers – so we really involve ourselves with them,” says Osnat Shurer, producer of Moana. “We made sure that we really respected the culture that inspired [the film].”
Moreover, Shurer believes that proper ethnic representation in a studio’s films starts from employing people from a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. She says: “Disney has hundreds and hundreds of artists in our studio from over 25 countries and that adds to the richness and diversity of everything we do.”
Although there’s much room for improvement in racial representation in Hollywood, progress has still been made from the days when actors like Mickey Rooney would don makeup that gave him the small eyes, rounder face, and darker skin of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Like Eileen says: “At least it’s still a step.”
Did you know only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were played by Asian actors in 2014, according to a study by University of Southern California (USC).