Overplaying the Whitewashing Card with The Martian

Back in June, our NOC mastermind Keith Chow wrote a probing article about how a Korean American character was being whitewashed in the film adaptation of the Andy Weir novel The Martian.

Now that the film has been released for over a week — with considerable box office success, trade publications like Deadline and Variety, among others have released articles about how the Asian American media watchdog group, MANAA, has followed Keith’s lead and declared the film to be guilty of whitewashing:

“So few projects are written specifically with Asian-American characters in them, and he’s now changed them to a white woman and black man,” MANAA founding President Guy Aoki said of Scott’s casting choices. “This was a great opportunity to give meaty roles to talented Asian American actors — and boost their careers… This feel-good movie, which has attracted Oscar buzz, shouldn’t get any awards for casting.”

Mackenzie Davis & Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Asians

I was able to watch the film for myself this past weekend, and my thoughts on MANAA’s released statement about the film being whitewashed? Absolutely ridiculous.

Now that I’ve called MANAA’s position on The Martian ridiculous, I should probably clarify a few things. First, I believe very much in the value of groups like these. I am also very well aware of the huge frequency of non-white roles being played by white actors. As much as I like to believe in the whole “the best actor for the job” philosophy, sometimes it can be quite silly (evidence in point: Ridley Scott’s previous film Exodus which for whatever reason cast Joel Edgarton and Sigourney Weaver to bronze themselves up and play Egyptians).

I was very much in the mindset to rip The Martian apart after hearing that presumably Korean and Indian characters in the book had been changed so that non-Asian actors Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor could play those roles instead.

“How dare they be so flippant about the origins of these characters,” I was fuming loudly in my head.

But then I saw the film, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I immediately noticed that the cast was quite diverse — and yes, while Mindy Park is indeed now played by a white woman, and Vincent Kapoor a black man, there were other things I noticed that made me quite pleased with the film. First off, the character of Bruce Ng (played by British actor Benedict Wong) had a significant presence and role in the film.

Benedict Wong

On a smaller note, the characters of Zhu Tao and Guo Ming (played by Chen Shu and Eddy Ko, respectively) had significance as well, representing China’s space program and were instrumental in ________ (watch the film to see their role!)

Also, NONE of the Asian characters portrayed in the film had demeaning roles and all contributed in an important way to the story. And while Vincent Kapoor was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, I actually liked this casting because first off: it’s freaking Chiwetel Ejiofor! And he was fantastic in the film.

Secondly, they made his character mixed race — his father was Hindu and his mother black. Not to mention, with Ejiofor and Donald Glover’s role as the quirky scientist Rich Purnell, we have two black actors in the main science roles (and neither of them died!). I appreciate this a lot because, let’s be honest, white and Asian men ARE over-represented in scientific roles, while black people are definitely underrepresented in those same areas. So to see that representation on the big screen? Amazing.

Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover
Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover

That being said, I have not read the original material so I cannot comment whether Mindy Park being Korean or Vincent Kapoor being 100% Desi played a TREMENDOUS significance in the story that altering their ethnicity impacted the film in a negative way. I can’t comment on that.

What I can comment on, however, is that the film was a lot more diverse than I anticipated going in. It was also fantastic to see Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig play important characters that held positions of authoritative power. In fact, none of the women characters were treated as objective stereotypical weak love interests and that was very much appreciated too. And last but not least, we have the always dependable Michael Peña as one of the main astronaut crew members.

So let’s talk about the statement MANAA made about the film being whitewashed. Sure, they could have given the role of Mindy Park to a Korean/Asian actress. And yes, the minuscule role of Ryoko was played by another (mixed race) white woman (by the way, that actress, Naomi Scott, is now the new Pink Ranger). But both of these roles were small, while the role of Bruce Ng was beefed up from the novel (according to the folks who have actually read the book). Meanwhile, the ethnically ambiguous role of Rich Purnell was played by Donald Glover.

The bigger problem is that with the mainstream entertainment media picking up MANAA’s statement, this is not helping the battle of what is considered awful whitewashing practices in Hollywood films and TV shows. It also shows how extremely limited MANAA’s scope is when it comes to diversity since they only focus on Asian actors and not on black actors and other people of color that aren’t Asian.

Yes, I am down for more Asians representing in meaningful ways, but I’m a much bigger advocate for diversity all around, not just limited to Asian actors. I want to see women playing better roles and not just sex objects or existing solely for the male protagonist to “get” her. I want to see black and Latino actors playing roles that are beyond the stereotypical poverty stricken story lines we often see them placed in. In those two particular regards (I could go on with LGBT characters, people with disabilities being actually played by actors with disabilities), The Martian excels, while also having excellent characters of Asian descent.

That being said, while it’s very possible that there was a “quota” for Asian actors in the movie, we just don’t know. We don’t know what went behind the casting doors. For example, most of us didn’t know that the role of Vincent Kapoor was offered to Irrfan Khan before he turned it down. Maybe they really did audition Asian actresses but went with a white actress instead. I see it ALL the time in my audition front and I’ve seen it in cases where they wanted a white actress but got an Asian or Latino or black actress instead. Now is whitewashing real and does it happen? Most definitely. Would I much rather have preferred if Mindy Park and Vincent Kapoor were played by actual Asian actors that represented those characters faithfully like in the book? Of course. Is it however a dealbreaker? No. Is this all very much subjective? Duh.

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Sebastian Stan

Sure, the main character is of course played by a white guy. While I much rather have, let’s say, someone like Michael Peña take the main helm and swap it with Matt Damon, I have to be aware to take progress in strides (although if the guy was indeed played by an Asian and we took our cultural roots in consideration for the story, rice is far more effective to grow than potatoes).

I must reiterate that I appreciate groups like MANAA for fighting the good fight, even when everybody else is telling them to quiet down. But I do not think this film is a battle that is worth fighting for as it shows how limited their scope is in terms of the films that have far worse representation issues.

While The Martian isn’t a godsend by any means, it is one of the better Hollywood films I’ve seen that has used diversity to an effective degree. And also it’s just a darn good film with great performances all around.

17 thoughts on “Overplaying the Whitewashing Card with The Martian

  1. Thanks for writing this Eddie! While I don’t necessarily agree that Mindy being played by a white actress is irrelevant — just because she isn’t explicitly described as Asian in the book, casting directors shouldn’t default to whiteness anyway — I will concede that seeing characters of color played by the likes of Benedict Wong and Donald Glover was definitely a plus! Donald channeling his ex-Community partner Danny Pudi’s Abed as Rich Purnell was my favorite character! Still, every time Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis shared screen time together, I kept thinking “how much more groundbreaking would this scene have been if these were actually two Asian Americans onscreen having a conversation?” In 2015, that shouldn’t be a radical notion.

    1. I read Weir’s book. I understood immediately that Venkat Kapoor was Indian. Mindy Park’s ethnicity was more subtle in the book but c’mon, folks! Mindy Park was Korean! Ridley Scott cannot default to his bankability defense because the role of Mindy Park was a “below the line” role. So, what gives Ridley? Mindy Park should have been cast Asian all day long and yes, it is relevant Eddie. Scott doesn’t get a pass because he offset those two peculiar casting choices with diversity elsewhere in the film. We want all the Asian roles cast Asian because we don’t get many opportunities to begin with. As much as I like the talented English actor, Chewitel Eijofor, he had no business in that role and I don’t buy the lame excuse that the Indian actor they originally wanted fell through due to contract snags. OK. Hire another Indian actor, don’t turn the role Black, call him Vincent and say he’s half Hindu and Baptist. W T H? I really dislike Ridley Scott’s recent casting choices and Exodus: Gods & Kings was a pure disaster on many fronts. I liked the motion picture called, The Martian. It was pretty good. Not as good as the book and no where near as good as “Sicario” that was released the same day. Ridley is slipping. BTW, I think Matt Damon as Watney was not the best casting choice–but he needed a top star. The role of Watney should have been cast younger and we just saw the “diversitysplaining” Damon in a similar role in Interstellar. It will be interesting to see if Damon ferrets an Oscar nod for The Martian.

  2. I agree with what you said regarding women characters having authoritative roles in the film…and in space too! It jumped out to me during the film, which is why I was also pleased after seeing it. Good review!

    1. Jessica Chastain was in command and powerful and glad they changed the scene with her and Damon when she went to fetch him in space. But, Kristen Wiig’s role was reduced to nothingness. I was really surprised to see that and what happened to the ending? It was so corny.

    1. I heard Irrfan Kahn (the latest Indian go to guy in Hollywood) had to bail on K issues, but just imagine how much better “The Martian” would have been if Naveen Andrews or Kal Penn or Aasif Mandvi or Kunal Nayyar had been cast as Venkat Kapoor. Andrews, Penn and Mandvi have name and face ID among moviegoers. When I saw Chewitel Eijfor as Venkat I was like W T H? Wonder was Andy Weir thought of the switcheroo?

  3. Being an advocate of “diversity all around” means not downplaying an asian cast member not being cast in lieu of a white one.

    1. If we’re going to object to this, then we should object and analyze on the why’s to every single time a character has been changed because of an actor with different ethnicity. Do you think that’s fair game?

      1. Yes, Edward, frankly it is fair game after decades of Hollywood bigwigs casting white actors as Asians. Maybe if more of us had stood up and vocally objected to the racist “yellowface” casting of the likes of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, Rex Harrison in “The King and I”, Joel Grey as Chiun in Remo Williams, David Carradine in Kung Fu, James D’arcy in Cloud Atlas, and the “posh” Anglo conversions from Asian roles e.g. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Scarlett Johannson in “Ghost in the Shell,” Emma Stone as Allison Ng in “Aloha” (WTF), et al. we’d be further along. And, the most recent disrespect such as casting “Mindy Park” white and blonde would have never crossed Ridley Scott’s mind because he would have thought twice about it despite his predilections to white wash.

  4. Freaking loving an actor doesn’t justify race bending and Hindu ain’t race and that guy didn’t even look half Indian from any angle. Y I u can’t slap words into something in hopes people will accept it.

  5. I’m just going to add some thoughts here.

    First of all, Chiwetel Ejiofer was a last minute replacement. They had an Indian actor in the role and then he dropped out right before filming. They had to find the most capable actor they could find who had the time to do it. Ejiofer happened to be free do it. And while a lot of people think there should never be exceptions to race-bending, it’s narrow to think that way. They tried to cast him Indian the first time around, but they had a schedule to keep when he dropped out. Simple as that. It’s not Scott’s fault or the casting department’s fault. If you wish to blame anyone, blame the actor who dropped out.

    As for Mindy Park, just like everyone else in the novel, she was never given a physical description. Her being Korean-American was merely an interpretation by many people. I didn’t interpret her that way, but that’s probably because I was influenced by many of my cousins having the last name Park(I’m white). Before anyone speaks of it, just because Andy Weir confirmed that he pictured Mindy as Korean-American in his mind, he didn’t write her that way. He left out those details ON PURPOSE so the readers could fill in the blanks however they wish. Also, the idea that Ridley Scott defaulted to white with Mindy Park is flawed logic because he didn’t default to white when casting Rich Purnell, who many read to be an older white man. But he was cast as a young black man, which is great. Just because society defaults to white people, it doesn’t mean that it happens in every instance. The evidence says otherwise when it comes to The Martian.

    *takes a deep breath*

    I’m done.

    1. There were so many Indian actors who could have replaced Irrfhan Kahn, many of whom I previously named above e.g. Naveen Andrews, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Kunal Nayyar even Aziz Ansari (athough maybe he’s a wee bit youngish, age 32). They could’ve been sought out. You mean they all were unavailable? Not buying it one bit.

  6. I am Indian and a big fan of Chiwetel. Not many of Nigerian heritage would like playing an Indian. No one asked Chiwetel how he felt. I think its a casting genius. In fifty years there will be many more mixed race actors and such questions will not be asked anymore. It sci-fi and a mixed race future fits right into it.

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