Doona Bae photo courtesy Doona.net; Natalie Portman photo ©Marvel
The flutter over “One Day” star Jim Sturgess joining the “Cloud Atlas” team has overshadowed a bit of juicier casting news: The Wachowski brothers have dodged a major bullet — slow-motion Matrix-style, even — by ultimately asking Korean movie star Doona Bae to play the part of Sonmi-450. When it was reported last year that the role had been offered to Natalie Portman, the Internet hummed with the sound of thousands of fans riffling through their paperbacks to confirm that Sonmi-450 was definitely, definitely a Korean character. The role had been, in Hollywood terms, whitewashed.
Whitewashing is a longstanding cinematic tradition, stemming from an era when it was completely common for serious ethnic roles to be handed to white actors — even if it involved painting them up a bit. I assure you there were no complaints about the transformation of British beauty Jean Simmons into a Tibetan maiden for the 1947 film “Black Narcissus.” Even as late as the 1960s we encountered Laurence Olivier’s intensely misguided makeover for an adaptation of Othello, and Natalie Wood’s for “West Side Story” (also a Shakespeare adaptation, oddly enough). And Mickey Rooney’s disturbing performance in the 1961 adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has forever tarnished the enjoyment of this movie for many people.
For every case like these, however, you could count even more in which a character’s ethnicity was simply changed with the stroke of a pen, adjusted to that of the actor who’d been cast. And while this occasionally meant that a black performer would have access to material originally intended for someone else (Eartha Kitt in “Anna Lucasta,” for example), typically this made it all the easier for money-hungry studios to shoehorn bankable (read: white) stars into virtually any script.
The cosmetic variety of whitewashing has largely faded into antiquity. It’s been almost thirty years since white lady Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a tiny Indonesian man in “The Year of Living Dangerously” — though actresses such as Angelina Jolie seem determined to keep the tradition alive. However, the latter, quieter kind has become all the more pervasive, especially as Hollywood becomes keener on adapting books and properties from other cultures. Fortunately, audiences and artists have found themselves united in fighting back. For example, the debate over whitewashing dominated all coverage of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender”; the director’s attempt at “colorblind” casting resulted in lighter-skinned heroic characters and a darker-skinned villain, as Always Watching‘s Adam Quigley helpfully illustrated with this helpful infographic.
Likewise, the upcoming live-action remake of “Akira” is already being protested by “Star Trek” veteran George Takei, as well as a group called Racebending. They claim that changing the setting from “Neo-Tokyo” to “New Manhattan” and casting super-vanilla actors like Robert Pattinson or Justin Timberlake amount to a whitewash of epic proportions, and anime fans are voicing their agreement.
Book lovers will always disagree about which details ought to be included in a film and which can be “massaged” a bit, but few disagree that changing a character’s ethnicity — pointlessly, purely for the sake of snagging a bigger name, at a time when there are major actors of nearly all nationalities — undermines the artistic integrity of the entire project. The Wachowskis already used up their free pass with “Speed Racer,” in which most of the characters were interpreted as Caucasian. Hopefully they’ve learned a thing or two from David Mitchell’s ever-vigilant fans. Nothing personal, Natalie — you’re perfectly adept at playing the White Swan, but less convincing as a bird of any other color.