When actor Ed Skrein announced he would be dropping out of the Hellboy reboot after his casting drew a wave of protests over whitewashing an Asian comic-book character, many of his industry colleagues supported his decision via social media.
One of them was Palestinian-German-American filmmaker Lexi Alexander (The Punisher: War Zone), who wrote, “Not only am I dying to work with him, after that note I’m tempted to write something specifically for him.”
Speaking to EW, Alexander says her response stemmed from the fact that Skrein was the first actor she’d seen take action within the industry to combat whitewashing (the casting of white actors as characters who were originally conceived as non-white). But, she cautions, it’s far too early to tell if Skrein’s stand will have any lasting impact on the movie business.
“It’s very hard to shame people in Hollywood into anything because they don’t often feel that kind of shame,” she says. “I wish I could have more trust in my industry to do the right thing after they see somebody make the right decision. Unfortunately, Hollywood really doesn’t have a great history. These things shouldn’t even happen anymore after the outrage over Ghost in the Shell and Iron Fist.”
And yet, they still do, because the issue is rooted in the industry’s failure to understand that not every hero or leading role has to be played by a white person. Hollywood likes to fall back on the tired excuse that there are simply no Asian movie stars bankable enough to attract distributors. Alexander points to Ridley Scott, who told Variety that he cast white actors as Egyptian characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings because an actor named “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such” wouldn’t ever attract the money he needs to make it. “That was rude, but it was an honest answer,” Alexander admits, “because that’s what everybody’s thinking.”
In other words, Hollywood whitewashes because it lacks Asian movie stars, but it lacks Asian movie stars because it’s averse to creating them in the first place. Yet that argument is undermined when you consider that the white movie stars the studios do create also begin their movie stardom as relative unknowns. Just look at the actors with top billing in the biggest franchise films these days: the Pratts and the Hemsworths, the Pines and the Evanses. “We can make six Chrises and make them into movie stars — and they all look alike! And they all get several chances!” Alexander says. “All of those Chrises at one point were nobody when they were given a multimillion dollar movie. Why is it when we see a white guy, we automatically think, ‘Let’s turn this dude into a star?’”
She may be exaggerating the number of A-list Chrises, but look at it this way: Hollywood has had chances to develop more movie stars of color. “How is it possible that we had [only] one Bruce Lee?” she wonders. “Yes there’s been other [Asians] — Jet Li, Tony Jaa — but how is it possible that there weren’t 10 other Bruce Lees being made, being turned into stars, the way we tried to turn people into Tom Cruises or Brad Pitts? Why aren’t there, like, 20 Will Smiths?”
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel; Clay Enos/Warner Bros.; Everett Collection; Jasin Boland/Marvel
Hollywood has made some strides towards greater diversity, casting actors of color as characters who were white in the source material — like Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Marvel films, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, and Zendaya as MJ in Spiderman: Homecoming. Critics unsurprisingly label this practice “blackwashing,” but Alexander thinks such race-swapping in these circumstances is necessary. “When 93 percent of our stories are told by white men, it’s an issue,” she argues. “And if those white men go on and tell the stories the way they see their world, which is all white, then it’s an even bigger problem.”
If anything, she says, Hollywood’s recent race-swapping hasn’t been progressive enough. “It would have been progressive if Spider-Man was Miles Morales [who is half-black and half-Latino],” she says of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which cast multiple actors of color in supporting parts, but starred Tom Holland, who is white, as Peter Parker. “Again, if we don’t create stars, if we don’t create more Will Smiths and more Bruce Lees, if we don’t create a Mohammad who is actually a Mohammad who can be cast in a Ridley Scott film, if we don’t create these people, then we are not representing America correctly.”
To Hellboy‘s credit, producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin have already released a joint statement saying they would commit to finding an Asian actor to tackle the role. And as for Skrein himself, the actor stands to lose little in his career because of his decision, Alexander says. Though he may not be an A-list name with a stack of blockbusters lined up going forward, she’s sure he’ll find something soon that will make him a household name. “I think there are a lot directors who feel the same way [as I do], who will take note [of his integrity] without tweeting about it,” she says. “He’s a white man who’s incredibly good looking…. And look, he’s the hero now.”