I think this is a good time to take stock of the current state of race-based casting practices in Hollywood again, since the subject has come up in a few recent releases. First, I want to point out that I've noticed a growing level of sensitivity to the issue, and there have been some significant bullets that have been dodged in recent months. Looking at the list of potentially problematic projects, mostly anime and manga adaptations, almost none of them have moved forward. Notably, the big budget "Akira" project has been all but quashed, while Spike Lee's new version of "Oldboy" is transplanting the story to America instead of trying to revisit the Korean characters.
Two recent prestige pictures have taken some heat for changing the ethnicities of real life people so that the parts could be played by Caucasian actors. I feel that "Argo" was the more egregious case, because director Ben Affleck touted the film's authenticity, yet cast himself as the film's hero, CIA operative Antonio Mendez. And then there's "The Impossible," which got a lot of flack even before its release for choosing to focus on a rich Caucasian family's experiences during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. It turns out that there was a real family who the main characters were based on, the Belons, who are Spanish. Notably, "The Impossible" is a Spanish production and has a Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona. However, his lead actors are Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor instead of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. No one has denied that the characters were anglicized in order to make the film more appealing to wider audiences, but the move was so blatant that "The Impossible" has sparked an outpouring of commentary, including this critical Guardian
Another film that prompted considerable discussion was "Cloud Atlas," which had a multicultural cast, and the actors played multiple characters in six different stories, including characters of different ethnicities and genders. This is a problematic one on several levels, but I'm inclined to give the movie a pass because all the racebending and genderbending was handled with balance and consistency, so we had a Korean actress playing a Caucasian woman in one sequence, and then an African American woman playing an Asian man in another, and Hugh Grant done up like a cannibal in tribal war paint in a third. The execution wasn't great, but I can't find fault with the filmmakers' artistic choices since they went to such extremes to pull this off, and the decision clearly wasn't made because they were trying to make the film more marketable or because it was a matter of convenience. In this case the good intentions, even if they were somewhat misguided, alleviate some of the sting. However, I still think the segment that had Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and others made up to look like Koreans is so off-putting, I'll be using it as a good example of why yellowface makeup is almost always a terrible idea.
The important thing to take to heart is that people are talking about the issue. Directors have had to address casting grumbles months in advance, and to take racial sensitivities into greater account. There are watchdog groups specifically keeping tabs on casting issues, and the audience has gotten more clued in too. I wrote a little about the "Hunger Games" casting controversy, but the real fireworks happened after the film's release, when there was an uproar over insensitive Twitter comments made about the film's African-American characters. I think we are seeing the culture shifting, and the greater awareness of some of these problematic casting practices, even if we're not at the point of widespread rejection yet. However, I'm optimistic that things can continue to improve.
I expect the biggest potential controversy on the horizon is Johnny Depp playing Tonto in "The Lone Ranger." Depp has long claimed Native American heritage and went and got himself adopted by a Native American tribe in a sign of good faith, but I don't know if that's going to be enough to stymie criticisms. His Tonto in the "Lone Ranger" trailers looks awfully stereotypical. Otherwise, I'm hopeful about this summer. Will and Jaden Smith will star in M. Night Shyamalan's "After Earth," "Fast Six" will feature its usual multicultural cast, and the giant robot v. giant monster movie "Pacific Rim" put out a teaser trailer that features Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi.
This upcoming awards season will also celebrate the success of films like "Django Unchained," "Beast of the Southern Wild," and "Life of Pi," all featuring non-white lead characters. It would have been nice to be able to add "Argo" and "The Impossible" to that list, but, well, bygones. It's enough for me that the whitewashing of the Spanish and Latino characters did not go unnoticed this time around. And maybe next time, the filmmakers will think twice before writing off non-white leads.