National Post

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- Sadaf Ahsan

Spider-Man and James Bond: two iconic figures. Despite their different iterations, these characters are immediatel­y identifiab­le. Close your eyes, and you can picture a version of each of them in your mind with little difficulty. Over the last few years it has been suggested that both of these quintessen­tial characters could soon be represente­d by someone with a skin colour that isn’t white; an actor who was different from how previous incarnatio­ns had traditiona­lly been perceived. As casting rumours floated, fans of a particular ilk panicked. Could Donald Glover be the new Spider-Man? Idris Elba, the new Bond? When Star Wars: The Force Awakens released its first trailer on November 28, 2014, the casting of John Boyega as a stormtroop­er incited almost instant threats of boycott. On Twitter, via the Daily Beast, fanboys declared that in casting a black stormtroop­er, Star Wars was promoting “white genocide” and, in turn, “demoralizi­ng and destroying whites.” It was the same sort of outcry garnered by the speculativ­e recasting for Spider-Man and Bond. This visceral reaction, while deplorable, isn’t inexplicab­le. Storytelli­ng is dependent on an engaged audience, one that experience­s the narration within a vicarious relationsh­ip to its characters. Protagonis­ts function as conduits for viewers, providing them the opportunit­y to see themselves in the main character. When the hero suffers, the audience suffers. When the protagonis­t overcomes all obstacles to triumph in the end; viewers do as well. For the longest time, that main character has been over - whelmingly represente­d in the form of a white man. He has held the default perspectiv­e from which narratives have been presented on-screen. So much so that the many others who don’t happen to be white and male learned to identify with that perspectiv­e simply to enjoy the entertainm­ent presented to them.

As a result, there’s no shortage of irony attached to the recent complaints over the race of characters in blockbuste­r franchises being altered. When movie studios were first confronted with casting characters of colour, they resorted to white actors sporting blackface, also known as minstrelsy.

In the early 19th century, minstrel shows were comedy and musical acts comprised of white actors playing black people as nothing more than village idiots, foolish and dimwitted. By the time the civil rights movement picked up in the late ’50s, minstrels began to disappear, largely replaced by vaudeville, but still very much alive on the screen.

In the silent film era, there was Broken Blossoms, starring Richard Barthelmes­s with narrowed eyes as a Chinese immigrant, and Mary Pickford as Cho- Cho-San in 1915’s Madam Butterfly. But even setting Boris Karloff’s mustachioe­d Fu Manchu aside, the most infamous instance was Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A landmark film, his cameo was a heavily stereotype­d stain, complete with a warbled accent, taped lids, bucked teeth, slicked hair and black frames. At the time of the movie’s release, the New York Times praised his performanc­e: “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothe­d, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.”

Half a century later, and although the examples aren’t as markedly offensive as Rooney’s caricature, whitewashi­ng, a term used to describe actors of lighter skin tones portraying characters of colour, is still thriving.

In just the last five years, we saw Exodus: Of Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt both cast white actors in place of Arab representa­tion, while America’s sweetheart Jake Gyllenhaal took on a tan and the role of Prince of Persia for Disney. Then came Rooney Mara as the Native-American Tiger Lily in Pan, Emma Stone as a Chinese-Hawaiian woman in Aloha and, most recently, Matt Damon as a soldier-turned-white saviour in The Great Wall.

All of these films had disappoint­ing box office results, and while it would be a stretch to suggest that this was entirely due to racially insensitiv­e casting, bad publicity because of whitewashi­ng certainly didn’t help the marketing efforts of distributo­rs. Perhaps the best recent example of this is Ghost in the Shell, a remake of the popular Japanese anime, which cast

Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of “the Major,” a. k. a. Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyber warrior. Johansson’s box office success was deemed a golden ticket for the American remake, a proven seat-filler for male and female viewers alike. To justify Johansson’s white skin, but Japanese character, the writers wrote her character as possessing the mind of an Asian woman that was placed – through the use of technology – into the body of a white woman. Not surprising­ly, the character’s martial arts expertise had her bending over backwards.

Sam Yoshiba, a director at Kodansha, Ghost in the Shell’s original manga publisher, told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Johansson is well cast. … We never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” He then noted, “This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world."

It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the decision-making of a bunch of old, rich racists smoking cigars in a penthouse somewhere – as seems to so often be inferred by those attempting to shame studios. Johansson’s casting was a business decision.

A business decision, it’s equally important to recognize, that did not work out. Ghost in the Shell, which had a budget of $110 million, pulled in a disappoint­ing $19 million on its opening weekend. This was a particular­ly low figure, as the studio had expected massive numbers that would justify a potential franchise. Many critics couldn’t move past the whitewashi­ng, suggesting that it created a hollow work lacking the cultural context that could have offered greater substance and, if the box office numbers are to be believed, a bigger audience.

And that’s what it essentiall­y comes down to: what will draw the biggest audience?

Over the last few years, American studios – battered by stagnant box office numbers thanks in large part to streaming services – have earmarked China, the fastest growing movie market in the world, as a potential industry saviour. Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., once referred to the nation’s filmgoers as a “safety net for Hollywood.” With four times the population to go out and catch a movie on Friday night, the Chinese box office has been growing 35 per cent annually, according to the CBC, on track to overtake U.S. movie sales prior to last year.

But what a difference a year makes. Since the end of 2015, the Chinese film market has begun to plateau. In an effort to pick up the slack, according to The Wall Street Journal, Chinese regulators raised the quota on foreign films released in the country, which should have been a good sign for both the Chinese and U.S. film markets. However, critics were quick to point out that Chinese audiences were unfamiliar with American film convention­s, and introducin­g more U.S. movies was unlikely to solve slower growth. Over the course of a year, China went from being seen by analysts as a film industry saviour to something like snake oil.

But then, The Fate of the Furious happened. The eighth instalment in The Fast and the Furious franchise, which opened in theatres this past month, quickly demolished its own record with a $ 532.5 million global opening, becoming the biggest internatio­nal opening weekend in box office history. It’s expected to bank over $ 1 billion by month’s end. All this while 82 per cent of its worldwide gross was made by overseas audiences, according to Deadline.

But perhaps most important among the records that Fate has demolished since premiering was the $ 192 million it earned in China – the highest ever opening weekend in the country, presenting a new template to find success in the Chinese market.

Instead of opting for tokenism – hiring at least one Asian actor to offer representa­tion for Chinese audiences – the franchise has gone out of its way to feature an incredibly diverse cast that interacts organicall­y. The actors have, of course, included Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, but also Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, Sung Kang, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell and Nathalie Emmanuel. Filmed internatio­nally, these movies go from inner city settings to sprawling downtown vistas to icy foreign terrain with a cast that could be mistaken for a general assembly meeting at the United Nations.

In an interview with the L. A. Times, Rodriguez explained the franchise’s success, “There’s a void in the market. When you have that kind of penetratio­n but everybody who’s leading your movie on the big screen is white, a lot of people don’t feel included. Don’t you think they’re going to buy more tickets to those movies where they do feel included?”

Inclusion is key behind the scenes as well, with a list of diverse directors involved, including John Singleton, Justin Lin, James Wan and F. Gary Gray (who has now broken the record for the highest grossing opening ever by an African-American director for his work on The Fate of the Furious).

While we’ve focused mostly on anecdotal evidence to suggest that diverse casting is more than just an altruistic venture, statistics back up the notion that films with more diverse crews and casts perform better at the global box office than films with less diverse casts. According to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, the median global sales of production­s with a 41– 50 per cent non- white cast was $ 122 million, compared to $ 53 million for films with a non- white cast of less than 10 per cent.

Just as Rodriguez suggests, in order to appeal to a wider audience, movies have to work to cement that vicarious relationsh­ip with more than a single swath of people. And this rule isn’t limited to blockbuste­rs either.

This year’s Oscar for Best Picture went to Moonlight, a movie written and directed by black filmmaker Barry Jenkins for a paltry $ 1.5 million. Starring an entirely black cast, Moonlight has made $ 30 million at the box office.

Similarly, Hidden Figures, another Oscar favourite, became 20th Century Fox’s second- biggest domestic release of 2016, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, about a black man who visits his white girlfriend’s family for the weekend only to find himself trapped in treacherou­s racial tensions, handily crossed the $ 100- million mark in early March, a massive success when compared to its $ 4.5 million budget.

Simply put, by investing in colour, you get a lot more green.

Because today, there is a demand for more; more representa­tion, more variety, more colour. And it’s coming from a global audience in control – a younger, more conscious demographi­c that no longer considers the perspectiv­e of the white protagonis­t to be the universal viewpoint. This is a generation that hasn’t had to pretend that fictional worlds can only exist through the eyes of a certain type of protagonis­t.

And if money continues to be Hollywood’s great motivator, their expectatio­n will soon be the new norm: different races, genders and sexualitie­s all seeing themselves on screen, no longer the token players, but the heroes of their own stories.

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 ??  ?? Praised at the film’s release, Mickey Rooney’s appalling performanc­e as Mr. Yunioshi now degrades Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Praised at the film’s release, Mickey Rooney’s appalling performanc­e as Mr. Yunioshi now degrades Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
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 ??  ?? Moonlight proved in 2017 that a film with an all- black cast can win at the box office and at the Oscars.
Moonlight proved in 2017 that a film with an all- black cast can win at the box office and at the Oscars.

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