Do you remember the broad Asian cast that had roles in the excellent Martin Scorsese film The Departed? No? Of course that's due to the fact that it's a western remake of the also excellent Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.
Do you remember how much western audiences loved all the obvious pandering to the Chinese market in Transformers: Age of Extinction? No? That was the highest grossing movie of all time in China, but did somewhat less well in western markets.
When an international movie like Ghost in the Shell or The Great Wall gets made with white characters in it as an obvious way to appeal/pander to western audiences, there are these days inevitable cries of "whitewashing". Without wanting to pretend that there is no history of racial casting issues in films, I feel that people seem to try and deliberately act stupid with regard to the economic realities of getting $100 million plus films bankrolled and released. This would be fine if it made no difference, but I want to write about it because I think these responses are actually sabotaging the efforts that will help move the industry in the right direction, and hurt the people that the complainers are claiming to be trying to help.
It shouldn't be controversial to say that big name, recognizable actors tend to help a movie to be profitable. Like it or not, people will pay attention to posters and trailers more when they see an actor that they know and like in it. Obviously there are always exceptions in both directions (successful movies with unknown actors, and big name actors not enough to save a bad movie), but these actors don't command salaries in the millions of dollars because movies studios are idiots with too much money to spend.
Are the Chinese just a bunch of racist assholes because the inclusion of famous Chinese actors and Chinese locations in Transformers: Age of Extinction made them go to see that movie more? Are Americans a bunch of assholes because they generally prefer the white, American version of The Office to the white, British version?
People seem to think that there are only two choices: stay authentic and use lesser known actors of the "right" race, or whitwash with some token white actors. But they forget the other obvious option: completely remove the international setting altogether and set it in a western location with well known western actors (usually white, but increasingly less so these days, like how Dwayne Johnson is in everything).
So in the case of Infernal Affairs and The Departed, it probably would have been better for Asian actors in general if an Asian movie had been made with a couple of lead white actors to appeal more to western audiences, rather than having an American version with no Asian actors, and an Asian version that most western audiences haven't seen.
A mixed version is a compromise that allows for increased box office to make the movie profitable, while still giving roles to non-white people and giving those actors more exposure, helping them become more famous and maybe eventually be able to give studios enough confidence to give them major or lead roles. At the end of the day, you can't just make audiences pay to see a movie, and so as long as celebrity sells tickets, you have to work within that framework and provide a path for non-white actors to build up that celebrity.
Take another recent movie, The Great Wall. People complained about "obvious whitewashing" with the casting of Matt Damon in the lead role. The movie has made about $300 million internationally, but less than $50 million in the US, with a budget of about $150 million. But the funny thing is, this movie was a collaboration between US and Hong Kong studios, intended to be the start of doing future collaborations, making movies that appeal to both markets. It stars several big name Asian actors (including Infernal Affairs star Andy Lau), who all could have gotten a big international boost if US audiences embraced this rather than shunning the movie. But for the cause of "fighting whitewashing" they've actually just helped prove that those Asian actors can't draw a profit, or that this joint effort simply isn't worth the risk again.
Color Rinsing Movies
What is quite funny is that the often maligned Fast and Furious franchise gets casting right. By making a generically enjoyable movie featuring action, fast cars, hot women, and just as important, a very diverse cast, you guarantee wide appeal. Vin Diesel I think is responsible in large part for this direction since he began producing the series with the fourth movie, Fast and Furious. Diverse cast and international locations have been a huge part since then. He followed the same formula with the recent XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, being sure to include a diverse cast including the legendary martial arts actor Donnie Yen, Bollywood actress and model Deepika Padukone, and even a cameo by Brazilian football star Neymar.
The fact that movies are struggling more to make profits in the box office (thanks to consumers having better options at home) is forcing studios to care more about international appeal. And this naturally makes them cast international stars to pander to those international audiences. Whether it's inventing excuses to include an international star, or giving a role to an international or non-white star that would have otherwise gone to a white star, the end result is that it's now making economic sense to give roles to non-white people.
The same forces that make studios whitewash movies are now also making them color rinse movies!
And this is a good thing we should be embracing.
Of course it can be a problem when movies get forced to do silly things to their story just in order to pander, and we should be wary of that. 47 Ronin is a good example, a movie that was only supposed to feature Keanu Reeves in a minor role (with about 15 minutes total screen time), and otherwise have an almost entirely Japanese cast, but due to it's bloated $200 million dollar budget, the studio freaked out and forced re-shoots and re-editing in order to make Keanu Reeves' role and screen time as large as possible. The end result was a mess, and the movie did quite poorly as a result.
But when a movie is done well, we need to recognize and, more importantly, support, mixed casting to encourage studios to take those risks more often. In the end it's our money that decides what studios will take risks on, and if we put them in an impossible position where they fear not enough profits if they don't cast stars, or boycotting due to "whitewashing' if they use a mixed cast, they will end up doing an entire remake in a different setting like The Departed did, which doesn't help non-white actors at all, or they will just avoid the project entirely, which also doesn't help.
We should embrace movies that have diverse casts and not always try to find the glass half full and look for shit to complain about. When Fast and Furious 7 has a great diverse cast, complaining because it also has some gratuitous shots of women in bikinis doesn't help. When The Martian casts Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that in the book is an Indian (ignoring the fact that they actually originally wanted Irrfan Khan but there were scheduling conflicts), complaining that the role "should have gone to an Indian" doesn't help. When Ghost in the Shell casts a wide variety of different races in different roles but people complain because it's based on a Japanese anime, it doesn't help.
We have to keep remembering that, at the end of the day, if we make casting of actors a minefield for movie makers whenever they're unable to put a famous person in the role, then they're just going to say "Fuck it" and recast the whole thing in Boston and call it The Departed. If Ghost in the Shell had been set in New Chicago featuring a full white cast, that would have been of no benefit to Asian or other non-white actors. But if we support mixed casting in movies rather than constantly finding some reason to say "better but still not good enough", then maybe we can actually get the progress that we claim to want, rather than just doing a bunch of virtue signalling back patting that in reality harms more than helps.