'Death Note' Is What Happens When Filmmakers Don't See Race

Death Note Still Lakeith Stanfield - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix
American adaptations need to realize that multiculturalism, not high production value, is the country's greatest strength.

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Netflix's Death Note.]

Like fellow manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell, Netflix's Death Note has been dogged by whitewashing criticism since castings were first announced. In translating Japanese source material for an English-language audience, Hollywood renditions have unfailingly employed white protagonists, despite the existence of English-speaking Americans of Japanese or other descents.

Unlike Paramount's Scarlett Johansson-starring flop, though, director Adam Wingard's Death Note transplants the setting from Japan to the U.S. (specifically, Seattle — where, it must be said, Asians are the second-biggest racial demographic in real life). Still, the casual Netflix surfer who watches Death Note unaware of its history is unlikely to notice the absence of Asians; other than a white American cop's inexplicable decision to name his son "Light," Wingard successfully erases all traces of cultural context from his film. Unfortunately, he does too good a job with it, because Death Note takes place in a country wholly unlike our own.

In Death Note, teen serial killer Light (Nat Wolff) is pursued by the mysterious private detective L, a fellow teen genius as defined by his behavioral quirks as he is by his staggering intellect. It's hard to imagine a more fitting actor for the American L than Lakeith Stanfield, a breakout for his eccentric performance as Darius on FX's Atlanta and surely one of the most idiosyncratic and gifted talents of his generation. And the prospect of seeing a young black L lead an international coalition of law enforcement and intelligence officers on a manhunt for a global mass murderer is full of rich dramatic promise and adds potential layers of commentary to the original mono-cultural Japanese version.

But L's blackness is never addressed, often distractingly so. When Light's father, Detective Turner (Shea Whigham), meets the great L, masked by a pulled-up turtleneck, he says, "I figured you'd be older … and that I could see more of your face." Turner the character may have refrained from noting L's race out of a sense of politeness, but Death Note's curious color-blindness is to its own detriment. The film offers several visuals seemingly without awareness of their resonance in the real world: a hooded L appearing on the national news, L brandishing a gun as he chases Light through the streets, Det. Turner putting L in a chokehold. It's not that those images are offensive to include; on the contrary, they are startling and fascinating and could have elevated Death Note, if only the filmmakers understood their import. As Indiewire's David Erlich wrote in his Death Note review, "Why go through all the trouble of setting Death Note in America if you're not going to set it in the real one?"

Obviously, Death Note is supernatural fantasy. But great speculative fiction bends physical circumstances and rules while reflecting real-world truths about the human condition and how we interact with one another. That's why audiences can easily suspend disbelief about rich white people who hypnotize and hijack black bodies through neurosurgery, and yet the most terrifying part of Get Out is near the end, when a police cruiser comes upon the bloodied black male protagonist on a lonely road. Director Jordan Peele understood that we don't watch movies and TV shows in a vacuum.

Wingard ambitiously compared Death Note to Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed, based on Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs. But The Departed succeeds because its characters don't just happen to be white. They are specifically white: The film uses Infernal Affairs' cops-and-gangsters premise to tell a story steeped in Boston's Irish-American community. It has the ring of authenticity.

Death Note is what happens when filmmakers are color-blind but not color-conscious. In many cases, color-blind casting has been used to justify certain decisions, such as when Hellboy executive producer Christa Campbell explained that film's recent decision to cast white Brit Ed Skrein as Japanese-American comic-book character Ben Daimio. "Someone comes and does a great audition [to] get the role," she wrote in a now-deleted tweet. "Stop projecting your own shit onto us. We are all one. We don't see colors or race."

And that's a shame, because America's greatest storytelling strength isn't high production values. It's multiculturalism — access to an array of backgrounds and identities, and an ability to find out what happens when they collide. It's a huge advantage that multicultural nations have over more culturally homogenous ones. Death Note, like all the manga adaptations that have come before it, fails to make use of this tool, reducing its primary task to linguistic shifts and superficial face swaps.