Is this authorial racism, a market-driven response, or part of a broader ethnocentrism in audiences?
These issues are taken up in a recent essay by David Cox appearing The Guardian entitled “Attempting the Impossible: Why Does Western Cinema Whitewash Asian Stories?” Opening paragraphs of the story are below:
“The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed at least 227,898 people. Around a third of these were children. The economy of coastal south-east Asia was devastated, with the loss in some places of two thirds of the boats on which fisherfolk depended. The environment was irreversibly defiled. Since many of the bodies were never found, psychological trauma was compounded by the tradition in many of the areas affected that the dead must always be buried by a family member.
“Scope here for drama you might have thought. Yet The Impossible, like Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter before it, concentrates not on the plight of the indigenous victims but on the less harrowing experiences of privileged white visitors. The film’s winsomely western family, headed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, experience little more than separation anxiety and survivable injury before jetting safely homewards.
This scenario has provoked outrage, not least on this site. The New York Times found the film “less an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday”. Still, the indicted parties have alibis to hand.
“According to Watts, ‘Fifty per cent of the people that died in Thailand were tourists.’ Good try, but perhaps a little disingenuous. Holiday paradise Thailand, with its 5,400 deaths, was actually at the margins of the tragedy. Indonesia alone suffered 130,700 deaths, largely of low-income Acehnese people; the figure for the UK, whence The Impossible’s family appears to hail, is 149.
“McGregor has filed a different defence. “Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her … In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping.” Does this make matters worse? Those who are protesting don’t want to see non-whites patronised with background roles as saintly ciphers; they want them to play mainstream parts as three-dimensional protagonists in what is, after all, their story.As it happens, The Impossible’s director, Juan Antonio Bayona, was inspired by the tale of a real-life family. However, this family was Spanish, not British. So, it seems, even Catalan people like the woman Watts actually plays aren’t considered mainstream enough, even for what is a wholly European film.
“Still, few who have spent much time in cinemas will be surprised. Ever since the medium emerged into an era of cheery racism, the movies have appeared to like their heroes to be white. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation celebrated America’s reconstruction after the Civil War with African-Americans played by white actors in blackface, together with a sympathetic attitude to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Now, of course, social attitudes have changed, and most of the time film-makers inhabit the vanguard of the progressive class. Yet white saviours continue to pop up in films such as Dances with Wolves, The Blind Side,Avatar and The Help. You can’t imagine an Oscar-winner like The Hurt Locker promoting Iraqi rather than American derring-do. Even children’s animations and, more weirdly, fantasy require Caucasians in their primary roles.
Producers have justified this approach with the claim that audiences won’t tolerate non-white characters or actors in dominant roles. Is this just a cowardly failure on their part to recognise the maturity of contemporary filmgoers? Apparently not. Last year an Indiana University study confronted 68 white college students with a variety of synopses accompanied by casts of varying ethnicity. ‘The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,’ said the report. ‘Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.’
“The success of Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry shouldn’t be exaggerated. A few genuinely mixed-race movies, such as the Fast & Furious franchise, have broken through. Yet in 2010, non-white actors took leading roles in only two of America’s 30 top-grossing films. Studios remain convinced that the audiences of middle America just won’t identify with non-white characters.”
Complete story, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2013/jan/02/attempting-the-impossible-asian-roles