Death Note & Whitewashing

death-noteThe film industry has slowly opened its mind and wallets to diverse productions. We have seen movies directed by women and the highest level of recognition by one’s peers given to both a African- American male and female in the form of the Oscar. Yet, it has not been some golden era of acceptance into a dawning of glorious representation of all the colors that make up humanity, it has been one more along the flight of the fated Icarus, lauding his ingenuity bordering arrogance. In this case it has been the film industry lauding its tolerance and leveling of the playing field that is Hollywood in favor of casting more minorities, but not always for the lead roles. There has been a long history of this, so I will not dive into the archives of time to dig up such films as The King and I, or even more modern productions like The Last Airbender, Gods of Egypt, or the more recent Ghost in the Shell. All of these were released to theaters world wide amidst an uproar of complaints that they lacked the diversity that the films themselves should have warranted.

The film world has expanded so much that new outlets have been created as ways for these once silent or ignored diverse faces to be seen on screens everywhere. We are in the age of streaming, an age that Netflix has reigned supreme in but they have met their own whitewashing demons as they have gained traction by adding more original series and movies that are almost on par with block buster productions. One that comes to mind is Iron Fist, a Marvel series based on the hero of the 70s who introduced martial arts to the comic book world. The series was pretty accurate with its depiction, right down to the non- Asian protagonist, with the very Eastern skills and teachings.

The arguments for the reason for the lack of diversity are manifold as we can argue the dearth of qualified actors or actresses being available for these roles, an argument I’m sure is not a new one, but the hits keep on coming as another Netflix series is facing the same claim. In March we saw the trailer for one of the most popular manga series, Death Note, and many were beyond excited to hear that this great story would be coming to the small screen. It boasted award-winning actor William Defoe as the demon Ryuk, who is basically the unwanted tag along of Light Turner, the protagonist of the story. Producer of the series, Roy Lee, has seen his new endeavor met with rage that he has not seen before for any of his other works, at least from his account.

Roy Lee has been involved in the horror hits The Ring, The Grudge, and the 2006 hit, The Departed. All of these are Chinese or Japanese films that Roy Lee adapted for “different cultures “, as per his response to the backlash; “It is an interpretation of that story in a different culture, so there are going to be some obvious changes. Some people will like them, some people may not,” but in his opinion the changes “make it more appealing to the US or to the English-language market…”.

There is no argument to be had against this sound business logic since there has been little opportunity to disprove it and the gross return for these adapted films totaled more than $371 million, bolstering his argument that the Roy Lee way is best for business. With those kind of numbers for films mostly unknown by non-cinephiles we can see how the whitewashing process would remain a staple of transitioning internationally made movies but it might not always be something so sinister, at least at its core. It is possible, even if a small bit, that the film making business is a victim of its own money blinding ignorance, propagating tired and arcane practices. Roy Lee could simply be part of that or there may be no fire to be seen in the structure of Hollywood, but the inner city axiom holds true, even here; if you see something, say something. Is anyone listening?

 

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