News broke recently that Scarlett Johansson has been cast as the lead in the film adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” an incredibly popular manga series. The series is set in Japan and follows a counter-terrorism and security officer by the name of Mokoto Kusanagi as she and her team combat cyberterrorism in the near future.
With film roles like The Black Widow in Marvel’s “The Avengers” and the lead in last year’s sci-fi mind-bender “Lucy,” Johansson seems like the perfect actress for a character like Mokoto Kusanagi. She’s able to ably perform in high-octane action scenes while still grounding her performance in the emotions of the characters she is playing.
There is just one giant problem: Scarlett Johansson is white, while Mokoto Kusanagi is not.
Casting Johansson in this role is a huge problem. This movie could have been a chance to create something high-profile with a strong female-Asian lead. Everything about the adaption lends itself to an Asian cast. The series takes place solely in Japan, whose population is nearly 99 percent ethnic Japanese. The lead character’s name is Mokoto Kusanagi, which is distinctly Japanese. Even the source material originates from Japan.
There are a plethora of Asian actresses who could have filled this role. Hollywood does not lack in diversity in its pool of actors and actresses, and when movies like “Ghost in the Shell” have their casts whitewashed it takes away opportunities for these performers.
And this isn’t the first time Hollywood has whitewashed a movie that should have had a non-white cast.
There was 1956’s “The Ten Commandments,” which starred Charlton Heston as Moses and Russian-born Yul Brynner as Rameses. That same year in “The Conqueror,” John Wayne played Mongol Emperor Genghis Kahn.
Since then, Hollywood has made huge strides forward in terms of opportunities for non-white actors and actresses, but things still haven’t changed much.
Last year’s biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which is set entirely in Egypt and consisted of roles that were all Hebrew and Ancient Egyptian characters, filled the cast with high-profile white actors. In 2009 Canadian actor Justin Chatwin portrayed Goku in the Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese manga/anime “Dragonball.” 2013’s “The Lone Ranger” cast Johnny Depp as the Native American character Tonto.
Even “The Hunger Games” isn’t immune. The lead of Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film, is described as having dark, olive skin and dark hair. The casting call for Katniss, which was circulated online back in 2011, called for Caucasian actresses between the ages of 15 and 20.
Films can even suffer from these castings. “The Conqueror” is frequently listed as one of the worst movies of all time with John Wayne’s casting being cited as one of the worst casting decisions in film history. “Exodus” was almost uniformly panned by critics and moviegoers, and the all-white casting attracted boycott threats and a lot of negative press.
Whitewashing is a huge problem in Hollywood. High-profile lead roles overwhelmingly go to white actors and actresses, while performers of non-white ethnicities are relegated to small roles, despite being equal in skill and experience.
Filmmakers have a responsibility to properly cast these movies. Movie-goers are ready and willing to watch movies with diverse casts that fit with the story being told. Hollywood just has to give them the chance.