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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

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.

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