It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalban was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? […] It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.
Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.
great commentary. however, I’d like to note that there’s an extremely welcome plot-twist regarding the Mandarin in IM3 which successfully and deftly subverts a lot of stupid tropes. don’t want to spoil anyone – haven’t seen it myself! I’ve only read really delightful spoilers from everybody else! – but by all accounts, that was actually handled perfectly.
reblogging for commentary & links. oh my goodness. I’d heard such effusive things…but yeah, those are all really good points.
I’ve been wondering lately: a lot of media attempts at subversion of certain tropes/stereotypes rely heavily upon portraying such tropes/stereotypes in order to then twist them around. To some extent, that may be inevitable – can you deconstruct something that you won’t even name? – but what’s the line? How do you subvert something and do so powerfully, with nuance, without (as IM3 has apparently done) turning a character into a symbolic Teachable Moment?
It’s still subversion, I think. It’s still miles better than I expected – seriously, this is the same industry that produced Zero Dark Thirty and gave it tons of awards – but as a storytelling device, how successful is it really?
I really don’t know. To me, the underlying politics of Iron Man are extremely conservative & especially given previous IM villains, I’m surprised that they went this far…my standards are so low they’re practically non-existent, and I suppose I’m inclined to clap for ANYTHING that’s not sickeningly and overtly racist.
But that’s not a great standard for storytelling.
Iron Man 3 spoilers ahead.
The thing is, as a lot of the praise has been on the trope subversion, how would the trope not have been just as subverted, if not more, if the Mandarin’s actor had been Chinese (or Chinese American)? If you had a menacing Jet Li play up the threat on TV and then his clownish side (he’s totally underrated as a comedian) coming out later? Or! They could have used Jackie Chan and hyped up his famous decision to never play a villain and be all “for the first time ever” and then surprise! It’d have been well done on so many levels. Not to mention, Jackie Chan! In all these superhero movies, we have these buffed up white people and their stunt doubles running around, and no actual Asian badasses? Mhmm.
There are so many specific options. Off the top of my head, I can think of a whole list of other actors, each more suitable than Kingsley. Andy Lau, also with both a dramatic career and the light playful popstar touch. Tony Leung and Donnie Yen, still so criminally unknown in the US. Louis Koo, who’s like…really tan and really good-looking. And just because I love them so much and will consider them for every role ever, Takeshi Kaneshiro or for a female Mandarin, Karen Mok. Oh, wait, the Mandarin can be white, but not a woman.
Or, hey, you know, what about Wang Xueqi, the actual dude hired for the movie, and then cut out for the non-Chinese versions? That whole mess was pretty terrible in itself. If you don’t agree with China’s policies and politics, fine, then don’t take their money. Such a cheap move to just cut them out. I totally wanted to see Fan Bingbing, too. Whitewashing and erasing Chinese characters in one movie. Nice.
The core idea of it all being a fake fear-mongering racist construct wouldn’t have been hurt by hiring a Chinese actor at all. Not any more than the actual idea of it. If that was a concern, why not have him upset about being duped and exploited and actually help defeat the real bad guys? If you can devote time to a random kid in Tennessee and Killian’s bald henchman, I’m not sure why the Mandarin himself couldn’t be a central character.