On August 21, it was announced that actor Ed Skrein, most notably of Deadpool fame, would be joining the cast of the upcoming Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen. Skrein’s casting immediately drew backlash as he had been cast as the character Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character in the original comic books.
Ed Skrein is not Japanese-American. He is a white, English actor.
The response from the Asian-American community could be described as a resounding, “AGAIN?”
It was this outrage that lead Skrein to step down from the Hellboy role on August 28. In a message he posted on Twitter Skrein said:
— Ed Skrein (@edskrein) August 28, 2017
A replacement for Skrein has not been announced.
The casting of Skrein as Ben Daimio was yet another in a long line of recent films and TV shows that have blatantly whitewashed Asian or Asian-American characters. Death Note on Netflix, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, the upcoming Ni‘ihau, to name a few – all feature characters who are Asian in the source material, but are played by white actors.
In the Cameron Crowe film Aloha, Crowe himself describes the character of Alison Ng as one quarter native Hawaiian, one quarter Chinese, and half Swedish in background. But instead of casting someone who represented that hapa heritage, Crowe cast Emma Stone. Who is white. All white.
Even in movies and television where Asian or Asian American characters are not played by white actors, the “white savior” narrative – basically a white protagonist who is the salvation for a group of Asian people – gets employed in what can only be interpreted as a way for Hollywood producers to ensure that their movie isn’t too Asian.
In Marvel’s Iron Fist starring Finn Jones, The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, and the recent Bruce Lee film Birth of the Dragon starring Billy Magnussen, white actors don’t necessarily take roles away from Asian actors (though it’s been argued that casting Jones in Iron Fist was a missed opportunity to cast an Asian actor and potentially undo some of the Orientalist stigma associated with the comic book), but emphasis is placed on their white character’s journey. Asian extras and supporting characters may outnumber the white protagonist, but typically it is the white lead who is a fully fleshed-out character, the one we are meant to root for. Representation isn’t only the number of Asians onscreen, it’s the quality of the roles.
The white savior premise in movies reinforces the idea that only white people can be heroes.
Whitewashing and white savior narratives aren’t necessarily the same thing, though they can occur simultaneously (Doctor Strange). Whitewashing removes Asian representation and white savior narratives put white actors at the center of Asian stories. Both amount to the erasure of Asians, Asian-Americans, and people of color from the media.
Yet, despite years of growing public outcry over whitewashing and white savior narratives, Skrein’s departure from Hellboy marks the first time that a Hollywood star has bowed out of a whitewashed role in a major film.
What took so long?
Is it because all Hollywood executives see Asians as box office or ratings poison? Is Hollywood afraid of Asians? Are actors, from superstars to to rising stars, so unsure of their careers that they will take a job despite racial implications?
Is Hollywood so precarious that Asian leads could topple the industry?
Admittedly, and to his credit, Skrein stepped down gracefully after hearing the anger his casting caused in the Asian-American community. He did not argue with the masses over semantics (like Jones and Damon regarding their respective projects) and he had the humility to say, “You’re right.”
Though it was likely a calculated move on the part of Skrein and his team, I’m willing to take Skrein’s actions at face value. He used his privilege and profile to set an example regarding Asian representation. Somebody always has to make the difficult decision to be first, and I hope Skrein’s choice will not be in vain.
And though the producers of the film praised Skrein and even echoed his sentiments, it should be noted they also initially defended Skrein’s casting as reasonable. Hellboy comic book creator, Mike Mignola approved of both Skrein’s casting and of Skrein’s choice to leave. Take that as you will.
Most notably, in a deleted tweet, executive producer Christa Campbell said, “Someone comes and does a great audition to get the role. Stop projecting your own shit onto us. We are all one. We don’t see colours or race.”
But we do see colors and race, Ms. Campbell, and more so, we need to see color and race represented in our media. Seeing color and race is not inherently a bad thing. It becomes vital when a character’s race directly informs that character’s world view and behavior – like in the case of Ben Daimio.
Also, “not seeing race” does not immediately mean a default to white.
Though I do applaud Ed Skrein’s actions, they are laurels I’m afraid Hollywood will rest on.
The film and television industry has a long history of giving actors of color an inch – be it pay, representation, or quality of roles – then sitting back and waiting to be patted on the back. There’s the implication that Asians and Asian-Americans should be grateful for “all” the representation we are getting these days – “It’s better than it was!” is a recurring subtext.
But it’s not good enough.
Until Asian and Asian-American actors (not to mention Pacific Islander actors) get to tell their stories, portray their characters, and have a fair shot at characters where “color doesn’t matter”, it’s not good enough.
Nobody ever strives for “good enough”. Asian actors have been settling for good enough for too long.
Ed Skrein did the right thing, and I hope his actions mark a turning point in representation.
But let’s not hold him up as a hero. White Americans have enough heroes, it’s time that Asians have some of their own.
Featured Image via Creative Commons, By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Ed Skrein)