(1) Fans (and George Takei) Revolt Over Hollywood Whitewashing
For anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Hollywood it’s an old story: white actors being tarted up in yellow-face to play Asian characters.
In the early 20th century we had white actors playing Asian good guys (Charlie Chan was played by Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters) and bad guys (Fu Manchu was played by Boris Karloff and Harry Agar Lyons, as well as by repeat offender Warner Oland).
As late as the 1970s, Bruce Lee was passed over for the lead role in the television show Kung Fu (which he may or may not have had a hand in originating) in favor of white actor David Carradine.
In the last few years the Hollywood remake machine has begun to grind its way through the extensive back catalogue of Japanese anime and manga. A live action version of Ghost in the Shell is in the offing, a live action version of the venerable classic Astro Boy is being floated, and Warner Brothers have been working on a live action Akira and are testing the waters for a live action Bleach.
With so many movies–and so much casting–at stake, the issue of whitewashing has been highlighted like never before. Fans–as well as everyone’s favorite gay sci-fi icon, George Takei–have had just about enough.
Takei, famous for playing Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, and almost as famous late in life as an advocate for gay rights and other equality issues, took issue with Warner Brothers considering white actors to play the (Japanese) main character in Akira:
The Advocate: Were you surprised to find out Warner Bros. is courting white leading men for roles in the adaptation of Akira?
George Takei: It’s not a surprise because that’s been a Hollywood tradition. For example, when I was very young, I read Pearl Buck’s epic novel of China, The Good Earth. And that film, all of the principal major roles were cast with Caucasians. As a matter of fact, Luise Rainer, who played the wife, won an Oscar for that. Paul Muni was her husband. It’s an old Hollywood tradition that we’ve always been battling, not just Hollywood but Broadway too, if you remember Miss Saigonand the furor over that. So, no, I really wasn’t surprised, but the audience has changed now, and I’m surprised Warner Bros. is not keeping up with the audience. The manga and anime phenomenon is mostly white in this country. It originated in Japan, and, of course, it has a huge Asian fan following. But it’s the multi-ethnic Americans who are fans of Akira and manga. The idea of buying the rights to do that and in fact change it seems rather pointless. If they’re going to do that, why don’t they do something original, because what they do is offend Asians, number 1; number 2, they offend the fans. The same thing happened with M. Night Shyamalan. He cast his project [The Last Airbender] with non-Asians and it’s an Asian story, and the film flopped. I should think that they would learn from that, but I guess big studios go by rote, and the tradition in Hollywood has always been to buy a project, change it completely and flop with it. I think it’s pointless, so I thought I would save Warner Bros. a bit of failure by warning them of what will most likely happen if they continue in that vein.
The most recent provocation is the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the (Japanese) lead character in Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi. Johansson is much beloved in geek circles for her turn as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is fast becoming a staple in science fiction films from the ridiculous and mediocre (Lucy) to the arty (Under the Skin).
But all the goodwill that Johansson has built up won’t insulate her, or the movie, from fan ire. As both the Mary Sue and Comic Book Resources have noted, a petition demanding that Dreamworks, the studio making the movie, replace Johanssen has gathered a healthy number of signatures (as of this writing it’s over 40,000).
Hell, even Forbes magazine sounds cross with Dreamworks (“Hollywood Loses The Plot With Its ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Movie Casting“). When a publication as starchy and retrograde as Forbes is calling you out on a race-related faux pas, dude you are in deep doo doo.
Anyone who signs the petition can include a comment if they wish, and the preponderance of the comments illustrate the fact that, while the issue of whitewashing has been raised before, a cultural tipping point may have been reached that places it squarely beyond the pale. Tyler Bechstein of California, signatory #39,408, is a good example:
I’m this movie’s target demo. I’ve watched the source material multiple times, and I WANT to like this movie and recommend seeing it to my friends. But whitewashing is a huge problem in Hollywood, and I straight up won’t see this movie if I feel Dreamworks (whose movies I usually adore) is casting white people in Asian roles because they feel I might be afraid to see the movie otherwise. I’m a white dude, and I won’t see this movie if it’s not as representative as the source material. If you’re targeting millennials, you’ll find that to be an exceptionally common attitude. Dreamworks: Fix this shit.
Here’s hoping that either Johanssen, Dreamworks, or both, come to a wiser decision.
UPDATE (March 1, 2015) Diversity in Casting and Profitability
One of the ostensible reasons behind the whitewashing of Asian characters is that bankable stars, who are predominantly white, are thought to help ensure that a film project makes back the significant investment it requires in the first place.
Making a film, after all, isn’t only an artistic venture, it’s also a business endeavor, and if it fails to make money or at least break even, that failure affects everyone who has a stake in the film, from investors, whose money is on the line, to the director and cast, whose prestige and future prospects are involved.
Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that if Asian actors continue to be underrepresented in film casting, even in films featuring Asian characters, they’re going to have a very hard time becoming “bankable” stars. It’s true, but it may not be persuasive to the people in charge of a particular project who need that project to succeed.
Now comes a new report on diversity (and its absence) in Hollywood. One important conclusion: diversity makes money.
NPR covers the report and quotes one of its co-authors, Ana-Christina Ramón:
“We continue to see that diversity sells,” says Ramón. “And that’s a big point that needs to be then relayed to the studios and the networks.”
According to the report, “films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment.” The same holds true for success in television.
A word to the wise folks at Dreamworks and elsewhere: when you whitewash, you’re not just perpetuating a noxious, immoral, irrational tradition, you may well also be shooting yourself in the foot. Or in the bottom line.
You can download a PDF of the report for free here.
(2) South Africa: Comic Book Culture
As a kid who was both a comic book geek and a socially conscious hippie, I still remember when Marvel first gave Black Panther his own title in 1977. He may have been created by two very pale white guys–Stan Lee and Jack Kirby–but he was the first black superhero in American mainstream comics, having been introduced a decade earlier in Fantastic Four #52.
(For more on African American superheroes, see “Afros, Icons, and Spandex: A Brief History of the African American Superhero” on Comic Book Resources.)
How things have changed since then.
The Wikipedia list of black superheroes includes more than thirty comic book companies with black superheroes and the Black Panther will get his own major motion picture in 2018 with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. Black superheroes are no longer exclusively created by white dudes and they’re not always American either.
Kwezi is a 19-year-old South African. He’s steeped in popular youth culture, but also establishes a connection with his traditional roots–and discovers he has super powers.
You can read the first issue of Kwezi online at the comic’s home page.
(3) South Africa: Aliens Resurrected
One of the great moments of 2009 for speculative fiction fans–and especially fans of international SF–was the release of the wonderful District 9, set in South Africa.
The movie was directed by South African/Canadian Neill Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and his wife, Terri Tatchell (both graduates of the Vancouver Film School).
So it’s welcome news that if the Alien franchise is to go through the mandatory reboot that’s affecting just about every successful movie franchise at the moment–or perhaps Alien‘s simply getting a new installment rather than a reboot, the details aren’t clear yet–at least the new film will be in Blomkamp’s capable hands.
Neither Blompkamp nor anyone else associated with the new film has released any hard details, but the director did post some concept art online, including an image of Ellen Ripley wearing alien-inspired headgear and one of Dwayne Hicks with his face disfigured by alien acid.
The art was created at a time when it appeared that Blomkamp would not make the new movie, and it may not translate directly into elements in the film, but it certainly gives a sense of Blomkamp’s mood and demonstrates that the project already has its teeth well into him (so to speak).
UPDATE (March 6, 2015) Messing With the Canon
Does Neill Blomkamp intend to mess with the Alien canon? Might all the Aliens3 haters out there–not to mention the detractors of Alien: Resurrection–have something to cheer about?
In a recent interview, the director said that he’d like his Alien movie (should it get off the ground) to “feel like it is literally the genetic sibling of Aliens. So it’s, Alien, Aliens,this movie.”
No mention of the less beloved third and fourth installments of the film franchise. Could they be headed for the memory hole, as George Orwell dubbed the pit of no return to which inconvenient facts, things, and people are consigned when history is re-written?
Stay tuned for more details as they emerge.
(4) The Glory of Mexican Pulp Art
Juxtapoz magazine–SFATW’s longstanding favorite art mag–recently posted sample images from a show called Pulp Drunk, running January 23 to March 7 at Ricco/Maresca in New York, featuring art from Mexican pulp publications.
As SFATW has noted before, comic book culture has deep roots in Mexico (SFATW Issue #2, “Mexican Psychedelic SF: Inés Estrada and the English debut of Lapsos“). And as anyone who’s visited Mexico can tell you, the Mexican comic art tradition and the pulp art tradition are two veins of the same artistic gold, overlapping and bleeding into one another.
Ricco/Maresca describe the pulp covers this way:
Post-war America saw the rise of the erotic pulp paperback novel covers. The objective of these covers was to lure in potential buyers with the promise of sex, suspense and drama. Simultaneously, a similar type of book and marketing strategy was being developed in Mexico. This brand of novel included racy cover art designed to attract and entice consumers; yet the differences in the subject matter being peddled to consumers was vast. While Mexican pulp covers did celebrate sex as much as their American counterparts, they also threw in violence, sci-fi weirdness, psychedelia, murder, and crime, often opting for scenes that depicted the blatantly bizarre rather than soft core smut.
These sensationalized images from the sixties and seventies often feature surreal and lurid images of extraterrestrials, robots, dinosaurs, killers, Zorro and many other icons involving suspense, mystery, romance, and the supernatural. The central characters in the narratives tend to be ordinary people facing the common challenges of day-to-day life. They are not gallant martyrs but commoners who have found themselves confronting outlandish and startling predicaments as a result of poor decisions or risky behavior. Through vivid colors, dramatic lighting and bold imagery, the cover art manages to leave the viewer with a sense of disillusionment and apprehension regarding the character’s fate without reading a word of the novel itself.
“Pulp Drunk: Mexican Pulp Art” reintroduces this art form to public as a brilliant and often overlooked pop-culture revelation. This exhibition is a celebration of the art that graced the covers of the paperbacks released south of the US border yet also serves as a visual observation of the fundamentals of Mexican attitudes towards art and consumerism. As Maria Cristina Tavera states in her introduction to the 1997 book Mexican Pulp Art, “The fantasy elements reflect Mexican attitudes about life, death, mysticism, and the supernatural.”
Not all of us can get to New York for the show, of course, but don’t despair. It turns out that Mexican pulp art is actually pretty well curated on several sites online.
SFATW has run down some of the major sources and present them here for your delectation. Click on any of the screenshots below to go to the relevant site.
And, if you prefer your art delivered in the old school fashion, you might also want to investigate the book cited by the gallery, Mexican Pulp Art by Maria Cristina Taver.
(5) On the Horizon from Hipper Tiger: Homo Artificialis
SFATW will soon have a companion publication. The first issue of Homo Artificialis will appear in March 2015, with six issues per year.
H. Artificialis focuses on the science and culture of artificial humanity.
On the scientific front it looks at current science that could, at least in theory, ultimately contribute to some of the forms of synthetic person we see in fiction, including both artificial intelligences and natural intelligences uploaded into artificial bodies.
On the cultural front, it looks at reactions to the notion of artificial humanity as portrayed in the arts, as well as the use of synthetic processes in the making of art, and notions of how art may evolve as artificial humanity evolves.
The topics covered on H. Artificialis will include, among other things:
- artificial intelligence
- AI/robotics and synthetic emotion
- AI/robotics and ethics
- whole brain mapping
- brain-computer interfaces
- regenerative medicine
- nanothechnology and nanomedicine
- tissue engineering
- artificial organs
The first issue will feature the following articles:
- “Synthetic Intimacy and the Erotic Turing Test (Part I)” — A look at intimate relations between humans and artificial persons in art and in real life. First in a series.
- “Robophobia: Killer Robots and Real-Life Warfare” — The increasingly heavy reliance on drones in combat raises questions about the use of autonomous weapons in war.
- “Artificial Evil: Red Flags and Storm Warnings” — Several high-profile figures have recently issued warnings about the dangers of AI. What can we make of their premonitions?
Like SFATW, H. Artificialis will also feature a library of free publications.
(6) Halloween Watch: Under the Surface of Cerberus
This October will see the third annual installment of the Ten Halloweens Project, a decade-long art project in ten parts with a theme ranging from the supernatural to the surreal.
Each Halloween over a span of ten years, from 2013 to 2022, I release a free work that becomes available in October, then disappears. The Ten Halloweens site goes dark until the following year, when it reappears with all the previous installments plus a new work for the new year.
Different iterations of Ten Halloweens take different forms. The first year it was poetry, and the second it was a short story, both of which could be read online or downloaded as a free ebook. This year it will be in a multimedia format.
At this point I’m releasing just two details to tease the new installment.
The first is the title: Under the Surface of Cerberus.
The second is the image below: Imaginary Portrait of Kenzaburō Ōe.
Make of that what you will–and be sure to visit Ten Halloweens come October.
And so, until next month, au revoir mes amis!