Ed Skrein announced this week that he is dropping out of the upcoming “Hellboy” remake following backlash over a white performer playing a character who is Asian in the comic books. The on-the-rise actor’s exit statement called for increased inclusivity and earned widespread praise.
But this latest example of Hollywood whitewashing raises renewed questions about whether the film industry is indeed making strides in providing leading roles for Asian-American actors and performers of color in general.
“Hopefully, this will mark a turning point in the ever-increasing trend of non-Asian actors taking parts originally written for Asians,” Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), told TheWrap. “Skrein’s stance has forced ‘Hellboy’ producers Larry Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Millennium and Lionsgate to say they will now do what they should’ve done in the first place — find an Asian-American actor to play the part.”
The “Hellboy” team initially defended last week’s casting announcement of Skrein in the Neil Marshall-directed film that stars David Harbour. Executive producer Christa Campbell wrote in a since-deleted tweet, “Someone comes and does a great audition to get the role. Stop projecting your own s– onto us. We are all one. We don’t see colors or race.” (Campbell also produced “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a film that has earned criticism for seemingly relying on racial stereotypes.)
Joann Lee, professor at William Paterson University and author of “Asian Americans in the 21st Century,” told TheWrap in reference to Campbell’s tweet, “It’s time for the Hollywood casting mindset to change. Not seeing colors or race is the problem.”
Skrein’s departure from the role of Major Ben Daimio follows flaps over previous films that featured white performers in roles conceived as Asian, including Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange,” Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” and Emma Stone in “Aloha.”
“This is classic Hollywood — someone is always on the outside looking in,” Matthew Hashiguchi, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor in multimedia film & production at Georgia Southern University, told TheWrap. “And in the case of Asian-Americans, they’re being completely removed from the story’s existence. It’s like genocide through script revisions.”
Hashiguchi doesn’t understand why these decisions keep getting made, given the outcry that routinely follows.
Peter X Feng, professor at the University of Delaware and an expert on Asian-Americans and the media, believes that while Skrein’s move is meaningful, it doesn’t necessarily signify progress on a bigger scale, particularly when studios don’t appear to be strengthening an effective pipeline to stardom for actors of color.
“I do think Skrein’s decision will make an impact, but this is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation,” Feng told TheWrap. “Things will change when the powers that be decide that developing more minority actors is more cost-effective than hiring PR experts to do damage control.”
“Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu told TheWrap that Skrein “sets a powerful precedent” and helps by “placing pressure on actors to avoid taking roles like this.” But Yu pointed out that the issue should have been ironed out before the “Game of Thrones” alum got the part.
“That responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the performer,” Yu said. “That’s actually near the end of the process. Producers and studios need to be more conscientious about casting to avoid getting into this position in the first place.”
Concerns remain that Hollywood’s struggle with casting Asian-Americans in film and TV leads has ramifications that reverberate far beyond the entertainment sector.
“People can’t pronounce Asian names, and many in the U.S. think that if someone looks Asian, they won’t speak English or are a foreigner,” Hashiguchi said. “This is partially due to the fact that Asian-Americans aren’t introduced to American society through movies and television. We’re perpetual foreigners.”
Representatives for Lionsgate and Neil Marshall declined to comment for this story.