We’d Love to See a Full Asian Lead For Once
This is not an article about 'Ghost in the Shell'
No, this isn’t an article about Ghost in the Shell, though it definitely could be about Ghost in the Shell, the Scarlett Johansson-led sci-fi action flick out this Friday that inspired major backlash last year for its casting of a Caucasian actress in a Japanese role. (At this week’s New York screening of the film, there were reports of press members getting kicked out by Paramount reps for simply uttering the word “whitewashing.”) And no, this isn’t an article about Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or hell, Emma Stone in Aloha—I could go in on the long history of Hollywood’s racist traditions.
But there are levels to this whitewashing, and it’s not always a white person playing someone of Asian heritage. The screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians—which is currently in development—announced itself as a beacon of hope earlier this year. Director Jon M. Chu made a casting call for his all-Asian cast, an almost unprecedented line-up from an American movie studio (it hasn’t happened since 1993’s Joy Luck Club). What Crazy Rich Asians accomplishes that Joy Luck Club didn’t is that this will be the very first Hollywood rom-com with an Asian cast, a huge milestone considering Asian actors are rarely cast in a romantic light—especially actors of the male variety. It’s a little bit better on TV (we’ve seen Kimmy Schmidt, Selfie, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackle Asian male stereotypes), but we’ve yet to really see it on film.
When Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu (who is very vocal about diversity casting) and all-timer Michelle Yeoh joined the project, Crazy Rich Asians really seemed like a revelation. And the director was very adamant about having an all-Asian cast, a process that’s been time-consuming from the mere lack of readily available Asian actors.
But after a lengthy search for an Asian male lead, The Hollywood Reporter broke news this week that the role of Nick Young will go to Singapore-based Henry Golding, who will be making his silver screen debut. And boy, is he handsome. The only catch? The actor, who is of Malaysian descent, is also half-white. The casting choice was entirely Chu’s, and we’ve gotta respect that, but it’s also kind of a bummer because it’s reminiscent of past casting blunders, like Katie Chang, who is part white, playing a full-Asian person in The Bling Ring. Or the controversy around light-skinned actress Zoe Saldana playing the dark-skinned Nina Simone in the singer/activist’s biopic. It’s a reminder that many of the Asian actresses who break out in the industry have white blood or white features (see: Keanu Reeves, Olivia Munn, Maggie Q).
I’m sure Golding killed it in his audition and will be great in the film, but this decision speaks to an even bigger problem than a sole director’s choice: There just aren’t very many Asian actors who are given the same kind of exposure—through managers or talent agents—as white actors. Still, despite the minor complaint, Crazy Rich Asians is a huge leap in Hollywood casting. Now, let’s remake Ghost in the Shell with proper casting.