Two events recently occurred in the world of pop-culture that, on the surface, appear very similar.
The first instance occurred last week, when controversy ignited surrounding the upcoming Hellboy film. Ed Skrein, a white actor, had been cast as Ben Daimio, a character who (in the comics) has an Asian-American heritage. This hearkened back to the uproar that occurred just last month, when Mandy Patinkin, also a white actor, was announced as the replacement for the African-American star of the Broadway play Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. In response to these respective outcries, both actors have stepped down from their roles.
Both these instances are centered around the concept of “whitewashing,” an issue that Hollywood has long grappled with and continues to spark conflict to this day. But despite their basic similarities, I find myself content with one of these stories and perturbed by the other.
Let’s begin with the Hellboy issue. The new film (a reboot of the previous Hellboy franchise starring Ron Perlman) is based on a comic book series with a built-in, dedicated fanbase. The character of Ben Daimio was distinctly created for the comic with an Asian heritage in mind. Ergo, casting a white actor to play the role doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and only underscores Hollywood’s deficiencies in properly representing Asian-American performers.
In the open letter he tweeted following his withdrawal from the project, Skrein explained that he was unaware of the character’s original ethnicity, and was stepping down “so the role can be cast appropriately.”
Now, Skrein is not an unknown in Hollywood, with a successful music career and a recognizable role in the hit film Deadpool. (And if anything, he’ll likely gain more esteem in the industry following his Hellboy withdrawal.) But his actions here are still commendable. Though cinematic Hollywood is slowly progressing in its attempts to be more diverse and inclusive, it’s refreshing to see a guy willing to not only recognize an example of the problem, but to take one for the team. Respect, man.
Which brings me to the other story.
The Great Comet play hasn’t been quite as lucky as Hellboy. Production is shutting down, with the final performance set for this Sunday. I don’t believe the casting controversy is entirely to blame – the play has been bombarded with financial issues almost since its inception. Nevertheless, it appears that the supposed “whitewashing” finally broke the camel’s back.
But therein lies the problem. For all the backlash you’ll see on social media, there’s more to this story than meets the eye, more than the typical “clueless casting” that sets people abuzz. While it is true that Mandy Patinkin was tapped to replace African-American star Okieriete Onaodowan, very little white was actually washed.
When Great Comet opened on Broadway last November, the star was not Onaodowan, but rather famed singer Josh Groban. The play was relatively unknown to the general public, having only premiered off-Broadway in 2012, and so the producers naturally wanted to offset the high costs with a recognizable star at the center. Groban, who is white, juggles many plates in his career, and the producers knew at the outset that he could not be attached to the production for long. Following his departure in early July, Dave Malloy (also white) briefly took over the lead role, and Onaodowan inherited it a week later.
Through it all, there was no controversy – no one was incited to complain about a white man being replaced by a black man for a role that simply called for… well, a man. It was only when the role went from Onaodowan to Patinkin (making his return to Broadway for the first time since Homeland premiered) that social media blew up. Cries of “racism” spread quickly across the Twitterverse, sparked by people who apparently hadn’t even heard of the play before Patinkin’s casting was announced. (The same complainers also didn’t seem to notice that Denée Benton, the female lead of the play, was black.)
Patinkin stepped down, but it was too late for the play itself, which had by then garnered too much negative publicity to be financially sustainable. Great Comet will close its curtains for the last time on Sunday, leaving its very diverse cast on the hunt for new jobs. (There is irony in that, but I won’t dwell.)
Obviously, there are fundamental differences between the Hellboy and Great Comet controversies, but many of these differences are worth considering from multiple angles. A film is destined to have a single set of actors, with no changes made once it is initially released to the public. A play, on the other hand, is designed to be produced and performed over and over again, with a revolving door of actors being necessary to sustain it. Sometimes the new actors will look quite different from the ones they replace. Sometimes they will be different ethnicities. And sometimes a string of actors will oscillate between multiple races, even as they all play one character. For this reason, many Broadway plays do not design characters to be cast based on their skin color. (After You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown! opened on Broadway in 1999, I don’t recall a widespread movement to reintroduce the comic-strip version of Linus as Asian-American.)
Still, there’s a lesson that can be learned from these two incidents about what “whitewashing” entails, and how combating it can have both positive and negative effects. The key, as always, is to let your reaction stem from the facts, and not from emotions or from an outside agenda. (And… while we’re on the subject, maybe don’t trust everything you read on social media. Those folks make it pretty tough to tell the difference.)