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The people and their cultures: POC and the movies

The Examiner’s Ed Moy inquires Does Hollywood ‘white-wash’ the casting of Asian characters in movies? Then he proves it…

After doing some research, I discovered that “The Last Airbender” wasn’t the only recent movie that cast white actors in roles that were originally created as Asian characters.

For example, the character of Kyo Kusanagi will be played by Sean Farris in an upcoming live-action feature based on the video game “King of Fighters”.

There’s also the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” along with a British actress Gemma Arterton playing his love-interest Tamina. The movie was also based on a popular video game.

And then there’s the recent announcement that Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are starring in a live-action version of the Japanese anime “Akira.”

And finally, there’s the casting of Keanu Reeves as Spike Spiegel in the live-action adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop.” (Although, I do admit that I think Keanu Reeves looks similar to the character.)

This all of course pales in comparison to the fact that last year, the producers of the movie “21” took poetic license in rewriting actual Asian American card playing MIT students as white characters.

The movie “21” was based on the best-selling book “Bringing Down the House”, about a real-life team of mostly Asian American students led by an Asian American professor John Chang and his teaching cohorts. (To read about the real “21” students and their professor click here.) MORE

21. Oh 21. See, 21 was when I first became aware that Hollywood was full of thieving, cultural appropriating assholes. This is a case where the fuckup is as bad as Avatar. It was Racialicious that brought this to my attention:Trans-Racialization in ’21’

Six MIT students band together to hoodwink Las Vegas casinos for millions. It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie — and it is. But before Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishbourne were cast in 21, Ben Mezrich wrote a non-fiction book called Bringing Down the House, upon which the film is based. In that book, Mezrich documents the infamous MIT Blackjack team, which was led by Asian American — not White — students.

Huh. Let me make that a standalone link:By the time Senor Kevin Spacey was done, the only Asian Americans were playing supporting roles, one being the goddamn girlfriend! (Pics at link) And as it turns out when you read that link, they fucked up the story too. For one thing, there was no romance in real life. For another:

Was an MIT professor really the leader of the Blackjack Team?

No. In the movie 21, an unorthodox math professor named Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) leads the team. The 21 true story reveals that the real MIT Blackjack Team was led by three individuals, none of whom were professors. Arguably, the most notable is Bill Kaplan, a Harvard Business school graduate who had also done his undergraduate studies at Harvard. John Chang and J.P. Massar were also very much the basis for 21’s Micky Rosa. “While [author] Ben Mezrich has been quoted as saying that Micky Rosa was a composite of myself, J.P. Massar, and John Chang, the fact is there is little, if anything, that resembles either of us except that he started and ran the team and was focused on running the team as a business,” says Bill Kaplan. John Chang graduated from MIT in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. An influential member of the original team, Chang would later re-team with Bill Kaplan as a co-manager in the early 1990s. J.P. Massar (“Mr. M” in the History Channel documentary Breaking Vegas) was an MIT alum who had helped Kaplan manage the original team in the early 1980s, shortly after the first casinos opened in Atlantic City. -Bill KaplanMOAR things they got wrong

Basically, Kevin Spacey decided that he wanted a star vehicle, and decided to completely erase the people whose story it is in the first fucking place!

Oh and the response to the concerns raised about this?

Several organizations such as Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) protested the movie and “Boycott 21” and other anti-“21” websites sprang up on the Internet.

According to MANAA, after the “white-washing” issue was raised on Entertainment Weekly’s website, movie producer Dana Brunetti wrote: “Believe me, I would have loved to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.”MORE

No bankable Asian stars. And dammit, the Asian American population didn’t just sit down and take it, they protested!! Shock!horror! And instead of fixing the problem, I’m just not going to film anymore of their stories. See how they like that!!!! The article goes on to list the many bankable Asian stars. And to point out the fact that Jim Sturgess was not exactly a big name Hollywood actor. They have no trouble making films off unknown or not too well known white actors either.

(By the way. Please don’t read the comments. There be idjits bringing in Asian anime and claiming that the characters thereof all look like white people. Nobody needs head exploding at 9:20 in the morning.)

In the meantime, we go to Avatar:

glockgal makes a profound statement: Over the course of this protest, I really have underestimated how insular a LOT of Americans are, especially when you get into towns that don’t have a lot of multiculturalism, like. It’s just plain ignorance.
For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements – EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them….a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IRL.
They simply don’t know. And they’ve never HAD to learn. Gyah, it’s so crazy and sad to realize that people have lived such insular lives.

Racebending links to the first in a series about how and why POC are placed in advertising: why and how People of color are included in advertising:Including people of color so as to associate the product with the racial stereotype.Part1

They also pose the question Is racebending legal?

The costumes have been whitefied Roman and Greek armour. Roman and motherfucking Greek armour. With a bit of samurai on the side. Lovely. JUUSSSST LOVELY. More carrying through of teh myth that only goddamn Europeans had any innovations.

In the same vein:Chinese calligraphy cut from movie, replaced by gibberish language Perfectly interchangeable, gibberish and the CHINESE LANGUAGE.

Chaobunny’s Guide to Casting Failis in Hyphen Magazine Blog. Which also has the headline of the day in And you shall know us by the trail of whitewash Goddamn! I cannot believe that I have been missing this mag! *heads off to subscribe and link website to blog*

And I just saw a review… GI JOE? The good ninja is actually…white? And is a street rat in Tokyo? And somehow gets taken in and treated as a favorite over his Japanese classmate? ANd said Japanese classmate then murders master in retaliation? Really?

As an aside: District 9 needs to go up in the hottest fire known to man. And I am freaking done with Peter Jackson. In the meantime, I noticed one blog call it “progressive.” Alien cockroaches in the slums of Johannesburg are freaking PROGRESSIVE. Also, note the treatment of the actual people of color in the movie. Here, have a Cluex4. To wit…[IBARW] It’s not murder, it’s a metaphor.Abstract: If you’re going to argue about a text’s metaphorical or allegorical representations of race, you may want to take a look at how it treats actual people of color before forming your conclusions about the subversion of racial stereotypes.

Everyone should find some time to watch this. Reel Bad Arabs Documentary

via: Racialicious

If you want some new blogs, you could do much worse than these, by the way: Fiqah at Possum Stew rolls out an essay for the ages:

Jihadis”*, Skinheads and Film Representation In which Arabs are relentlessly evil, but white superemacists are not only 3 dimensional, they are shown as sexy and misunderstood, too.

Muslim Reverie. is the new blog of Jehanzeb, a Pakistani Muslim American who writes kickass essays, beautiful poetry and features astonishing art on his wordpress.

I had read his takedown of that vile, racist, waste of film, 300, when it first came out. He has updated the piece since then:

Frank Miller’s “300? and the Persistence of Accepted Racism

In the following essays, he focuses on the Hollywood penchant for whitewashing; this is…stealing our stories and retelling them with white people. Dressed in what our cultures. Which are then considered exotic.

What’s Wrong With This Picture? takes on Prince of Persia, a Disney movie based on a video game. The guy behind this one is Jerry Bruckheimer. You remember him. He did the The Pirates of The Caribbean. Which featured a rather…”interesting” portrayal of a lady named Tia Dalma who was supposed to be a Jamaican “obeah” woman. Except that according to Wikipedia she was originally the nymph Calypso from Greek mythology???? Sooooo, the character aint really black, just a white woman impersonating real Jamaican obeah women? What the … And then of course, there were the Caribs. Who were portrayed as savage Cannibals out to eat Jack Sparrow. Except that, well, they weren’t savages, and the cannibalism thing? Is something of a dispute. Naturally, Disney thoroughly ignored the Modern-day Caribs demands for accurate representation. Who gives a fuck about the movie’s reinforcing of stereotypes on Carib children? There are white people to give adventures to! And the trope is easy and familiar enough, escaping the primitive and savage POC for a laugh! *sigh*

Seeking Avalon saw the above link, and offers her own thoughts on the whitewashing of Sinbad. Like her, I find it astonishingly disturbing that I too, completely missed said whitewashing. Ai yi yi. They get you coming and going.

From IBARW comes:A night at the movies Which for a POC, is fraught with BS at practically every turn

and IBARW: On stereotypes and the use of racist terms.

and ibarw: visibility of indoctrination, particularly this comment

finally Digital Femme asks a simple question

No. Not finally. Not finally at ALL: Because tablesaw breaks down the main conceit of Warehouse 13 and does it with STYLE. Aztec bloodstones?!?!!?!? Oh Hollywood, how I hate you so!!!!

Moving on to comics turned movies: On the Green Lantern Movie casting

ANNNDDDD then we come to the problem of Non Native Americans being cast in movies. Seems lots of people wanna claim various fractions of Native heritage so that they can play Native characters on the silver screen. Friday, Tonto, Jacob Black, et al. The additional links there are pretty good. Meantime :Tinsel Korey, Ben Kingsley (my my my, he DOES seem to get around, doesn’t he? First Iranian father, now Half Native American), Johnny Depp (yeah, I didn’t know he had Native ancestry either.Funny that.) That Twilight annoyance are some of the non-Natives whom Hollywood has decided are better at playing Native than real Natives are. Speaking of Twilight both book, and by extension movie got it rather wrong about the Quileute tribe. Then again that’s not surprising. She admits to knowing nothing about the Quileute Tribe before she wrote the things. *eyeroll*

Hipanics in the movies:More roles, but more of the same

At the beginning of this article we promised some bad news, and here it is: With the exception of a handful of actors and actresses, Latinos and Latinas are rarely offered principal roles. And the roles they get typically portray the same fatigued and fatiguing stereotypes: Latinas as exotic, sexually hot, passionate “spitfires,” for example, or language-mangling comic relief. Beltrán says that, for the most part, Latinos seldom play fully realized characters. Although there may be more jobs available, they are basically the same roles that Latinos have assumed for the last 80 years.

“Look at Salma Hayek in ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997) or John Leguizamo in ‘Empire’ (2002),” Beltrán says. “Hayek plays the sultry girlfriend of Matthew Perry — she’s an ultra-sexed Latina like we’ve seen in Hollywood films for decades. And Leguizamo’s role as a drug lord hearkens back to bandito characters that first appeared in early silent films in the 1910s.”


Latinos Work To Change Stereotypes In Hollywood

This despite the fact that In 2007, Nielsen EDI estimated that Hispanics accounted for 33% of all moviegoers. That is more than double what Hispanics represent to the national population.

To understand the scale of this, Hispanics purchased 297 million movie tickets in 2007 compared to 150 million for African Americans. Hispanics also go to the movies more often purchasing 10.8 tickets per person vs. 7.9 for the general population.

In fact, here’s a Nielsen article breaking down the Latino movie habit

Is Zoe Saldaña The Mainsteam Latina Star We’ve Always Hoped For? Related: Yes Virginia, Black Latinos exist. In fact:Black, Latino and Gifted in Hollywood

So Zoë Saldaña Wasn’t the Only Latino Actor in the Star Trek Movie

Finally, Mixed Hispanic and Native American Actors & Actresses

Have a good weekend!

*Collapses in exhaustion*

37 thoughts on “The people and their cultures: POC and the movies”

  1. karnythia says:

    I love this post.

  2. korshi says:

    Another example that comes to mind is Dragon Ball Z… I don’t know enough about it to know if race was explicit in the manga/anime, but I was pretty disappointed to see that every main character was white, and the few asians were background characters.

    1. nojojojo says:


      The manga takes place on an alternate Earth with no resemblance to our own world, but it’s made pretty clear by the names, attire, etc., that most characters were meant to be Chinese (even though it’s a Japanese series, it’s based on a Chinese legend), while a few were Caucasian. Gokuu himself wasn’t human — he’s an alien from a species that can pass for human. But he looked “normal” enough to go unremarked as the adopted grandson of a Chinese martial arts master, so most fans assumed he was meant to be Asian too.

    2. Skemono says:

      I was pretty disappointed to see that every main character was white, and the few asians were background characters

      I didn’t actually watch it, but what really gets me when looking at the cast is that they actually have a lot of Asian actors in there. Son Gohan, Master Roshi, Yamcha, Chi-Chi, they’re all Asian. But not the main character! No, we can’t have a lead role go to an Asian actor.

      Which is made even weirder by the fact that he was supposed to be Gohan’s grandson. How does Justin Chatwin look like the grandson of Randall Duk Kim?

    3. nele says:

      Ack, I’m sorry for that html. So sorry. That was about Death Note, Full Metal Panic, and Ninja Scroll.

      Death Note:

      Full Metal Panic:

      Ninja Scroll:

  3. pigeonweather says:

    thanks for exploding my head at 7:55 in the morning. All I can say is thank god for harold and kumar!

  4. Ico says:

    Echoing Karnythia’s comment about the awesomeness of this post! Seeing these examples all lined up together like that is powerful. It’s also really depressing.

    Related, Naamen also has a link to an interview with Neil Gaiman in which he talks about Anansi Boys and the racism of studios that wanted film rights, but didn’t want to make a fantasy movie about black people:

    As for District 9, I’ve been wary of it ever since that stupid promotional contest that only allowed males to enter.

  5. Jonquil says:

    You are awesome in your thoroughness. Thank you.

    I remember reading “Bringing Down the House”, and it lays out in specific detail why they chose only Asian kids for the team — they were using the casinos’ racial stereotyping about Asians to their advantage.

  6. Sam says:

    It’s really sad. Especially when you consider the roles that Asian actors and actresses do manage to get–usually horribly stereotypical and borderline offensive.

    I didn’t think about the lack of Asian faces in media when I was young, but now that I have a daughter, I’m hyper aware of it. It isn’t enough that they [as in Hollywood/big media] won’t give us good roles to begin with; now they co-opt the ones we’ve created for ourselves? Ugh.

    (Though I feel I should point out that Keanu Reeves actually is Asian. His father is Hawaiian and Chinese. Not as good as if they’d cast a Japanese or Japanese-American man, but not so bad either.)

  7. Fiqah says:

    Wow, awesome – and comprehensive – links post. I can never find the energy to put one of these together. Brava, and thanks very much for linking the Stew.

  8. Ico says:

    Re: Dragon Ball Z, the story of Son Goku is *very* loosely based on Journey to the West, one of the four Chinese literary classics, which features the monkey king (Son Goku) and his extending bo, as well as his cloud walking ability–both of which are in DBZ.

    Arguably DBZ takes a pretty big departure from Journey to the West otherwise… but all the martial arts stuff? The writing on their uniforms in hanzi? The black hair/eyes of all the major characters (except Bulma and her family)…? Pretty well Asian I think.

    1. nojojojo says:

      Yeah, Bulma and family are generally read as Caucasian by fans. (Though the natural blue/purple hair makes it a little hard to parse in racial terms at all, the telling factor is their names, which are English words [based on underwear… but English] and written in katakana, which is used for foreigners’ names.)

      Good Lord, I’m outing myself as a DB fan. Shutting up now. -_-

      1. Ico says:

        Hahahaha, well I think I already outed myself, so I guess that makes two of us. ;P I didn’t know the names for Bulma etc were written in katakana, though I should have guessed it!

        And I just remembered there’s Emma Daiou, too–another aspect of the world that is very distinctly Asian.

    2. A. says:

      I wish I could find the youtube video on this subject, but it actually does state that, in regards to facial features and other things, It’s pretty obvious that Anime characters are Japanese, and not white. They go on to do an Asian face in 3/4 view, profile and other such things, as well as a white face in profile and 3/4 view.

  9. recumbentgoat says:

    awesome documentation and commentary. will be bookmarking and thank you!

  10. DCMovieGirl says:

    Fantastic post and DAMN thorough.
    Thanks, for doing all that work. :)

  11. UBW says:

    This is a phenomenal post.

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  14. david says:

    Spike Spiegel (from Cowboy Bebop) is NOT Asian despite being an anime character. Neither is Snake-Eyes, the good ninja from GI Joe. The good, white ninja vs the bad Asian one is taken from the original 80s toys.

  15. nojojojo says:

    This. All of it. Linking at Racebending (hopefully you haven’t already done so).

  16. JoAnn says:

    I love this post.

    Sadly, I have to agree re: GIJoe – Snake-eyes *is* white – at least from the comic books, he’s blond and blue-eyed – the whole bit. Horribly disappointing to me, when I tracked down the books and found out.

    Dragonball Z-movie – saw it briefly on the airplane; had to take out the ear plugs because it was so. wrong. nails on chalkboard

  17. skywardprodigal says:

    Awesome post. Thank you for making it.

    Yeah, we know them by their whitewashing for sure. Ugh.

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  20. 7thangel says:

    i saw the link from avalon about district 9 and the lj confirmed that it was shit and full of fail in regards to race and race as a metaphor.

    another link that did a review that came to the same conclusion was d.c girl @ the movies right now she’s getting attacked by fanboys as anon with the typical bingo card crap.

    1. Skemono says:

      Yeah. Just trim off the last ‘l’ and you’ll get the page, though.

  21. Pingback: links for 2009-08-16 « Embololalia
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  23. Momsomniac says:

    Wow – quite a post. You know, I sometimes wonder if the folks who make these movies think we are all idiots, or if, in fact, they are.

    I know of no straight woman or gay man (of any color) who doesn’t think the actor who plays Miles on Lost is hot, hot, hot. I would love to see him as the star of a paranormal cop show; he’d be a perfect fit. Sadly, this underscores why that probably won’t happen.

    Oh, and as a mixed white/Cherokee person, if I were an actress, I think I’d be a rotten choice to play anyone who is, in theory, “full blooded.” Mixed? Maybe. Though many Cherokee have been mixed since waaaaay back, to hear some folks tell it, the Cherokee somehow secretly conquered this nation….

  24. Rob Hansen says:

    I was nodding along with all of this until I came to that link about the Green Lantern casting. Hal Jordan has been my favourite superhero since I was a kid, the one character above all others I wanted to see a movie made about. I’m delighted they’re now doing just that. John Stewart was a later addition to the mythos and used in the Justice League cartoon because – laudably – they wanted the team on screen to be ethnically diverse. But I’m not prepared to see that as a reason the movie should’ve been about him instead. Sorry, but I just can’t do it.

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  27. Jan S says:

    Re: “District 9,” I read Seeking Avalon’s comments on this film, then watched the original short on which it’s based, and then watched excerpts from a ComiCon panel on the movie which included Peter Jackson, the lead actor and the writer/director of the short and the feature, Neil Blonkamp (sp?).

    I also watched a trailer for the feature version of “District 9.” While the alien has “feelers” which make it resemble a cockroach, and its exoskeletal structure also echoes that insect, the pixelated area where a cockroach’s mandibles would be is, I believe, disguising tentacles.

    Having read and watched all this, I’m sure I’m not understanding all the reasons why an alien that looks somewhat like a cockroach is a fail. I’m not a PoC. I’m not a rabid Peter Jackson fan. I’ve been reading SF/F/H for over 30 years, and watching it nearly as long. There’s a lot of dreck in movie/TV SF/F/H, imo. Thankfully, there is also a portion of these films that is very fine. I seldom agree with movie critics.

    I could guess as to why an alien as a cockroach might be cause for anger, but I don’t like putting words in other people’s mouths. So, if someone could elaborate on this reaction, or point me to some URLs that would do so, I’d be grateful. Thanks in advance. And yes, this is a serious, honest request; I’m not interested in starting wars.

    1. unusualmusic says:

      District 9 is racist [Alternate Perspective]

      scroll down for comment three as well.

  28. 7thangel says:

    District 9 verdict: good, uneven, nausea-inducing, more than a little racist. Here’s what we’ve learned from the film. Spoilers follow the jump, but not many.

    1. Aliens are not malevolent. They’ll react to provocation and poverty but ultimately want to be left alone and captain their own destinies. We can agree on that.

    2. Nigerians, however, are psychotic savages motivated by superstition, greed and avarice. It’s not really accurate to say that the (mostly) white South Africans are portrayed as blemishless. After all, they’re oppressing and ultimately exterminating the Prawns in pursuit of lucrative military technology. But they’re treated as, well, civilized, even as they act monstrously. The Nigerians in District 9 act without logic and proportion and use violence and voodoo as a first recourse. You could tell the morality play of District 9 entirely without them, and so their inclusion just emphasizes the way in which white anxiety is the engine of the movie.

  29. Zahra says:

    Wow, this is awesome. I may never have to do work again!

  30. Jan S says:

    To unusualmusic—

    Thanks for the URLs! The Racialicious review and subsequent comments were most enlightening, containing much I didn’t know about contemporary Nigeria and South Africa. I’m grateful for the education, which I plan to pursue by reading more nonfiction about these and other nations on the African continent. I’m grateful to all the commenters too, for adding their perspectives.

  31. Anemone Cerridwen says:

    This may not seem too critical an issue to the rest of you, but they make Canadians in films invisible, too. In The Whole Nine Yards and The Proposal, they hired Americans to play Canadians and Canadians to play Americans. There may be other examples, but there are so few Canadian characters in American films (even though we make up 10% of the potential “US domestic” audience), erasing differences is largely irrelevant.

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