By: Olivia Wong
Since the early 1910s to the modern era that is 2019, whitewashing in film has always been a prominent issue for people of color. The meaning of whitewashing in film is to cast a white actor for the role of a formerly non-white character. Because of the long history of whitewashing in movie-making, you can guarantee that views on the practice and usage of whitewashing have evolved over the years. In this article, I’m going to look at three prominent films throughout time that whitewash specifically Asian characters.
We start our trip through history with the film, “Charlie Chan Carries On” (1931). The story of Chinese detective Charlie Chan and his quest to solve the murder of a wealthy American. However, Charlie himself is portrayed by white actor Warner Oland in yellowface. Whitewashed characters were over exaggerated and excessive in their use of racist stereotypes, in a Variety review of the movie, the magazine praises the cast’s acting, stating “the flippant pieces of philosophy spoken by Chan (Warner Oland) in almost doggerel English and the more funny lingo of Warren Hymer, as the Chicago racketeer” (Charlie Chan Carries On, 1930). In spite of the blatantly exaggerated characters, Chinese audiences applauded Warner Oland’s depiction of the character. Maureen Corrigan writes “Oland made a trip to Shanghai, where he was celebrated by movie audiences there for bringing to life the first positive Chinese character in American film” (Giving ‘Charlie Chan’ A Second Chance, 2010). This surprising reaction can be credited by the fact that previous Chinese characters such as Dr. Fu Manchu form in American media being villains.
Now jumping forwards in time by about 30 years, we arrive at the first of many James Bond movies, “Dr. No” (1962). In the first Bond movie, the suave spy must defeat Dr. Julius No, a half-Chinese, half-German scientist and his henchman Miss Taro. Both Dr. No and Miss Taro where played by white actors, Joseph Wiseman and Zena Marshell respectively. While in Charlie Chan Carries On actor Warner Oland was in blatant yellowface makeup, director Terrence Young has both white actors wear much more subtle makeup. But he makes a point to have music, clothing, mannerisms and set pieces all point to the fact that both characters are Asian. Variety called the movie “an entertaining piece of tongue-in-cheek action hokum” and specifically describes miss Taro as “an Oriental charmer who nearly decoys him (Bond) to doom via her boudoir” (Variety Staff, 1961).
Finally, we end our trip with “Ghost in a Shell” (2017). The blockbuster film is based on the manga of the same title. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyber-enhanced human who is illustrated as Japanese in the manga but is played by Scarlett Johansson and renamed as Major in the film adaptation. Her casting as Motoko caused a lot of controversies and reignited discussions on whitewashing in Hollywood. So much so, that fans had created a petition to recast Johansson which had received more than 13,000 signatures. Petition creator Julie Rodriguez told Huffington Post “What concerns me is the fact that minority actors are so rarely given opportunities in big-budget leading roles…it’s a self-defeating cycle: Hollywood insists viewers won’t be drawn to unknown minority actors, but they’re never given the chance to break out of a narrow set of background roles to prove themselves”(The Huffington Post, 2015). But in the end, Johansson went through with playing Motoko Kusanagi in the film.
So what has changed over the past century of movie-making? Well between the 1910s to 1980s we can clearly see how the use yellowface has changed. In “Charlie Chan Carries On”, actors were in full makeup with cartoonish features and drunkenly slurred accents, but the practice had calmed down somewhat when it reached “Dr. No”, with actors in minimal yellowface but more culturally appropriated costuming and set design. Dr. No wearing a mandarin collared shirt and Miss Taro in a Qi Pao with a deep side slit.
But yellowface is nowhere to be seen if we look at films from more recent years such as “Ghost in a Shell” or “Doctor Strange”(2017). Both movies take very similar approaches when addressing their Asian characters. As we’ve seen in “Ghost in a Shell”, producers chose to cast a white actress for a now renamed Japanese character. The choice to rename the protagonist and give her an English name was most likely to dodge accusations of whitewashing the character. After all, you can’t be accused of whitewashing a Japanese character if she simply isn’t Japanese anymore, right? “Doctor Strange” also chooses to simply erase a character’s Asian ethnicity. ‘The Ancient One’ was an old Tibetan man who played mentor to Doctor Strange. But in the movie version of the comics, Marvel Studios chose to remake The Ancient One into a Celtic woman played by “Tilda Swinton”. Rather than depicting compelling people of color in blockbuster films, both studios chose to take the easy route and literally whitewash characters.
By comparing these movies, we can see how whitewashing was more mainstream and extreme in their racism back in the early 1900s through 1980s. But as more Asian actors and actresses rise in the ranks of Hollywood such as Priyanka Chopra and Constance Wu, whitewashing has been viewed as a crude practice that has no place in the modern media. But in the end, we can’t deny that whitewashing is still prominent in Hollywood, that itself is a fact. But with notable movies starring Asians such as “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) and more diverse casts being created and normalized, Asian activism becoming more mainstream and more discussions on whitewashing opening up, we are making progress in erasing the racist media practice from mainstream media.
Olivia Wong is an artist and freelance writer who is currently attending Singapore American School. When not glued to a computer, she enjoys drawing, playing the violin, and running her Dungeons and Dragons game.
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