Just as the controversy surrounding Hollywood’s “All-White Oscars” row had nearly faded from the headlines into the graveyard of memory, the big-budget arm of the American film industry managed to fumble its way into yet another race-centered calamity.
Despite repeatedly insisting that the lack of any non-white Oscar nominees was in no way a sign that the industry might have a race issue, Paramount and DreamWorks recently went ahead and announced that Scarlett Johansson would be cast in the leading role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action remake of legendary anime, Ghost in the Shell.
As you can probably tell, Motoko Kusanagi is a Japanese name for a Japanese character in a Japanese story that’s set in a fictional Japan of the future. Between Scarlett Johansson and Japanese, as you may have noticed, sits a whole spectrum of white. Her most significant link to Japan is Lost in Translation, which was filmed in Tokyo. By casting her as a whitewashed Kusanagi, the two studios are basically telling the world that there isn’t a single Japanese, or even oriental actress capable of playing that role. Either that or they simply prefer a white one.
Some people in certain liberal-leaning corners of the internet saw this as conclusive proof that Hollywood is fundamentally racist. Film blog, Screencrush, poured further fuel to this crackling bonfire of moral outrage by publishing allegations that the studios went so far as to commission visual effects tests to make Scarlett look slightly-Asianic with the help of CGI –an incredibly awkward, seriously problematic case of hi-tech “blackface”– meaning that this ethnic disparity isn’t something that had failed to register on their radar.
Quite evidently, this tippexed Ghost in the Shell isn’t an innocuous oversight, but is it irrefutable proof of inherent movie industry racism? Max Landis, a Hollywood screenwriter best known for his work on Chronicle and American Ultra, doesn’t think so, and even took to YouTube to explain why in a vlog titled “If You're Mad About Ghost In The Shell You Don't Know How The Movie Industry Works.”
As you can deduce from the title, Landis leans on his movie industry insider knowledge to argue that this isn’t a racial issue, but an economic one.
To realize such an elaborate sci-fi narrative in cinematic form, you need a lot of money, and financiers that can offer movie makers those sort of sums want to see a return on their investment, so they demand certain assurances from directors, producers, and studios to boost their chances of making as much money back as possible. One such assurance is usually a star name that will pull in paying crowds. Someone like Scarlett Johansson is one of only a handful of females in Hollywood that, Landis argues, could possibly get a movie of this financial scale green-lighted.
He’s right to an extent. Mainstream, big-budget blockbusters aren’t a pure form of creative expression in the way that a painting is. For example, they’re money-making enterprises with a movie attached to them. On the indie circuit, which tends to work with significantly smaller budgets, filmmakers and studios can rely on grants from film funds and government cultural bodies. Hollywood, on the other hand, is at the mercy of the free market.
In indie cinema, profit comes second to critical acclaim, award wins at film festivals, and leaving a lasting mark on cinematographic history. In mainstream film, this equation is reversed, so a filmmaker's artistic vision is dictated by market patterns that might maximize a movie’s chances of succeeding at the box office.
In this regard, labeling Hollywood outright racist is a bit reductionist. Scarlett Johansson wasn’t cast in the lead role to maintain white hegemony, she was chosen because her name has the familiarity and star appeal to draw in crowds. The majority of the cinema-going public will pay to see her movies regardless of plot or critical praise, and ultimately this is what movie industry suits are interested in, rather than staying true to the original Ghost in the Shell or actively discriminating against anyone. But by centering this conversation around economics, people like Landis ignore the injustice that money helps perpetuate.
Sure, at its very heart, money is colorblind, but that shouldn’t be taken as a redeeming quality. Money may be neutral, but it’s also amoral, and in its indifference it silently tolerates acts of heinous immorality: from Swiss brokers that helped sell on art that was plundered from the Nazi's victims, to Western leaders turning a blind eye to foreign dictators that facilitate their interests, money is ultimately concerned about race as much as it is about human rights violations. In other words, not at all. Also, by framing this as an economic issue, rather than a racial one, we ignore why, exactly, a white lead is good for business: because America’s white population enjoys greater spending power than minorities, and ultimately that’s the reason why culture is created in their image.
Another glaring issue that Landis conveniently sidesteps in his YouTube rant is why exactly there aren’t any A-list Asian actors that can rival Johansson’s fame. Bizarrely, he places it at the feet of J.J. Abram’s recent Star Wars reboot and the Harry Potter franchise for failing to cast unknown minority actors in lead roles, which could potentially help ignite new potential non-white stars. By doing so, he completely ignores ingrained white privilege – which must surely be a major part of the reason why the majority of top-tier actors happen to be white.
Hollywood insiders might not be overtly racist, but no one is immune from ingrained prejudices that guide our reasoning subconsciously. This is exactly why policies like Affirmative Action or the NFL’s "Rooney Rule" exist, as a means of counteracting them. Not that this should be misconstrued as a pardon. The media shapes our worldview, and by shaping an individual’s worldview, it, in turn, shapes society. No media reaches a greater mass of people and has as broad of an appeal as Hollywood blockbusters. By refusing to use their position of influence for social good, film industry insiders are complicit in maintaining a racist system. And that’s only one shade away from racism itself.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.