So you’re a well-meaning, open-minded, pro-diversity actor who’s booked a great role. But with a great part comes great baggage, and now your Google Alerts and Twitter mentions are cluttered with think pieces and angry posts accusing you of “whitewashing” and “cultural appropriation,” which are basically two steps away from the most hurtful attack of all: being called a racist.
What’s a well-meaning actor to do? Finn Jones, star of Netflix’s upcoming Marvel series Iron Fist, is the latest hapless beneficiary of Hollywood's casting preferences, and he experienced the backlash firsthand Sunday after he retweeted a speech by Riz Ahmed and declared, “Representation is important. And here’s why.”
Several Twitter users seized on the irony of the message and the messenger, given the years-long #AAIronFist campaign that urged Netflix and Marvel to cast the titular role with an Asian American actor. Iron Fist, aka Danny Rand, was conceived as a white character in the source material, but #AAIronFist advocates argue that his 1970s comic-book origins stem from pop culture’s longstanding tradition of appropriating Asian culture to service a white protagonist.
Jones responded to one such reply, from Asyiqin Haron, a Singaporean woman and creative director of the website Geeks of Color. During their ensuing exchange, Jones defended the show’s “socially progressive story” by pointing to its inclusion of actors from varying backgrounds, including female lead Jessica Henwick, who is half Singaporean Chinese, while Haron insisted that an Asian protagonist would have solved the source material’s problematic race issues.
The discussion, which spanned a couple of hours Sunday, led Jones to deactivate his account temporarily (he restored it Monday morning). Haron, meanwhile, was besieged by Jones' defenders and has now made her account private. The stalemate was reminiscent of Tilda Swinton's and Margaret Cho’s Doctor Strange email conversation, whose exposure in December revealed, despite the pleasantries each actress shared with the other, a failure to effectively communicate. In that light, THR offers a guide for the well-meaning, liberal-minded actor who has unexpectedly found himself or herself in a PCPR (politically correct public relations) nightmare:
Don’t take it personally
Although you are simply a person who was offered a job and took it, that unfortunately has literally made you the face of an institutional problem. Hollywood has an enduring history of underrepresentation when it comes to nonwhite faces. Although the U.S. population is approaching 40 percent “minority,” Hollywood’s depiction of such people is about 25 percent, with certain groups faring even worse than others — about 5 percent of speaking characters in the past decade’s worth of movies were Latino, about 4 percent were Asian and less than 1 percent each were Middle Eastern, Native American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
These exclusions are exacerbated when Hollywood makes movies and television shows that draw heavily on these cultures without using actual humans from those cultures to drive the stories. And when this happens repeatedly, people get frustrated, and they tend to vent their frustrations at a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the trend. If it’s any consolation, you’re in Oscar-winning company – Emma! Tilda! Matt! — and you probably won’t be the last.
Part of the reason you’re even in this situation is likely because of your skill as an actor. So here’s an exercise: Imagine that, all your life, you’ve been surrounded by media images that look nothing like you, from the heroes on the big screen to the families on the small screen, and even to the ads you flip through in the magazines at the dentist’s office. The 5 percent of the time a white character is depicted, he is almost always a sidekick, a villain or a joke. Occasionally, you hear about a movie or TV show that will be set in medieval England, and you get excited, but inevitably the project always ends up becoming about a Moor who comes in and saves the day.
Doing character work involves spending time listening to people who’ve had certain experiences without judging their grievances. To do would be as presumptuous as, say, a journalist telling an actor how to do his job.
Take it upstairs
It is unfair that you have to take the heat, when you’re not the one making all the decisions! So take the knowledge you’ve gleaned, and share it with your director, your writers, your producers. Tell your team that they need to put together some resources so you and your costars are fully equipped to respond to this “controversy.”
One point of clarification to start with: There’s a difference between “whitewashing” and “white savior.” Whitewashing is when a white actor plays a character that was not originally white (such as Doctor Strange’s Ancient One). White Savior is when a white character is the protagonist of a story set in a nonwhite culture, and proves to be more adept at that culture’s traditional skill set than any of its practitioners. A wealthy white American who goes to the Himalayas and becomes the only martial artist gifted enough to bear the mantle of an ancient mystical power would be an example of the latter.
It may feel risky to notify your employers that people are mad about your casting. But first of all, they already know. (And they probably have known about these issues long before you came into the picture, which means that they don’t care.) But if you truly care about being socially progressive and celebrating actors from all different backgrounds, then you have the opportunity to, er, put your leverage where your Tweet button is. Like Ahmed said in his House of Commons speech, it’s not enough to “throw people crumbs out of politeness.”
And even if you never get to play a master martial artist MIT mathematician Egyptian God who successfully defends ancient or neo-Tokyo, Pandora, the Sioux tribe or jazz music ever again, something tells me that there will be roles out there that do fit your type. Just a hunch.