Death Note: Whitewashing and Blackwashing Double Standard

Netflix’s Death Note is scheduled for a August 25th release, and online discussion of the film has increased with the release date drawing closer. When I voiced my thoughts on the casting of Nat Wolff as Light Turner (Yagami in the anime) on YouTube, one user asked for my thoughts on the casting of Keith Stanfield as L. At the time I did not realize L was being played by a black actor, and assumed L was another case of more whitewashing.

I have previously discussed the double standard in people’s reactions to whitewashing vs “blackwashing”. When a character of colour is played by a white person people are quick to argue that we shouldn’t focus on race etc. “Best actor for the part, it’s more marketable, it’s just a movie etc.” This is regardless of whether the film is based on a true story, like 21 or is simply a work of 100% fiction. Now, if a white character is changed to a person of colour people suddenly aren’t colour-blind. “Why does Hollywood keep changing the race of characters we love? Why are they pandering to minorities? This is so politically correct!”

I have previously discussed this double standard by using examples of whitewashing and blackwashing in different movies. Death Note offers the perfect case study of the double standard since we have a case of whitewashing and blackwashing in the same film.

1) Whitewashing is being defended for the most part, while the blackwashing is being criticized.

2) Race wasn’t a key part of either character’s identity in the story (e.g. not as important as Chiron’s race is in Moonlight)

3) Both characters are main characters

Firstly, Hollywood “panders” to white people when they whitewash. One of the most common defences of whitewashing by film executives and audiences is that white people are generally more marketable than people of colour. By using this excuse, audiences and film executives admit that they are guilty of their own “pandering”, yet no one has a problem with pandering as long as it benefits white people. This is despite the fact that white people are disproportionately represented in mainstream Hollywood films. Although minorities make up nearly 40% of America’s population, they only account for 1 in 10 lead roles according to a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report.

The underrepresentation isn’t simply due to a lack of minorities who want to get into acting, or some sort of talent deficiency among minorities. Productions like The Get Down and Straight Outta Compton demonstrate that there is plenty of minority talent that can shine if it is given the opportunity. This is what makes it even more frustrating when a role is given to a white person only because their skin is viewed as more desirable. Now I imagine that whitewashing defenders are quick to jump back to the marketability argument, which offers the perfect segway to discussing Death Note.

Anyone who has seen Keith Stanfield in anything will know that he is undeniably talented. Stanfield is also arguably more marketable than Nat Wolff. Nat Wolff’s fanbase is limited to YA content such as Paper Towns, while Stanfield has already amassed a diverse repertoire ranging from Straight Outta Compton, Get Out and his role as fan favourite Darius of Atlanta. The success of these aforementioned projects also shows that the presence of blackness is not guaranteed to lead to box office damnation. In 2015, people of colour purchased 45% of all movie tickets. Diversity won’t scare this segment of the population away. There are those who think Stanfield’s casting is indicative of a cashgrab for minority money, or political correctness. Let’s analyze the double standard though. If changing the race of L, like changing the race of Light, is just good business, why do people have a problem with it? Don’t people always defend whitewashing as a perfectly ethical business move?

The Departed is often used as an example of another American adaptation, that changed the race of characters from Asian to white (adapted from Hong Kong’s Internal Affairs). Like The Departed, people argue that Death Note has no obligation to keep the characters Asian since it is an Americanized story. Of course, I don’t mind the American location. American does not have to equal white though. People use the American argument to defend the whitewashing of Light, but for some reason that argument doesn’t apply for Stanfield as L. Maybe people want to know where Stanfield is really from? Light and L are both meant to be Asian, so if one race change bothers you, another should as well. Maybe you’ll argue Light and L don’t look Asian.

If you draw a stick person in a country such as America or England, people will generally assume the stick person represents a white person unless you add racial markers e.g. brown skin. When you read a book where the character’s race is not implied or stated, what race do you assume? White is often the default for people in many countries. In Asia, they would assume the stick person represents an Asian person if you draw one and if they are reading a locally produced book they would assume the character is Asian. When they create their animation, they don’t feel the need to indicate a character is Asian by adding stereotypical markers like slanted eyes and yellow skin.  The confusion arises when anime gets exported to countries that are not used to seeing Asians drawn a certain way. Despite the country of origin and names in some cases e.g Light Yagami, people still assume the characters must be white due to their skin tone and the lack of slanted eyes. Point being, those people are wrong. There were people who also assumed that Rue of The Hunger Games was meant to be white, even though she was described as having dark brown skin in the books. Assumptions do not always equal reality. Light is meant to be Asian, so Wolff is not the intended race, the same way Stanfield isn’t the intended race. If people can accept this fact, support Wolff and criticize Stanfield, then it is clear they just have an issue with Stanfield’s skin tone.

One particular argument used for Stanfield is that L is meant to be pale, since he doesn’t go out much. Basically, people are arguing that Stanfield won’t look like the character in the source material. What about the fact that Light is white and not Asian (or Asian-American)? Aren’t double standards fun?

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