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?

The Great Wall

The Great Wall was never on my radar since the trailer failed to interest me, and because the inclusion of a white main character came across as a blatant example of whitewashing. Matt Damon’s character is a European mercenary, but it begs the question of why this character had to be introduced instead of focusing on an Asian one.

I have repeatedly discussed whitewashing on this blog and on YouTube, which is why I grow tired of repeating the same arguments, to defend the same arguments in support of whitewashing.

I came across a tweet from a user who I have previously had respectful disagreement with.

I didn’t bother getting into an argument with this user.

Firstly, there is a huge double standard in terms of race-change in comics. People will defend The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell and Death Note blindly since white actors are more “relatable” or “marketable”. Or people will simply say that they are colour-blind and that we shouldn’t focus on race so much.

If a person of colour plays a white character there is a firestorm of criticism, ranging from Rue in The Hunger Games (2012), to Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four (2015).  People suddenly aren’t colour blind. They want actors who look like the characters, who fit the demographics etc. If people complained about non-speaking black extras who were in The Hobbit (2012) for ten minutes, they are obviously not colour-blind. They just don’t care as long as more white people are on screen.

The Great Wall isn’t an adaptation. The source material for this historical fantasy is the setting. It makes sense for the main character to be an Asian one, and now we have some people arguing that Chinese people don’t want to see themselves on screen. Don’t get me wrong, Chinese audiences shell out a lot of money for white American and European actors. I just don’t think they would be repelled by a Chinese actor. How are minority actors ever supposed to get bigger roles if they are always denied because they are not a big enough star?

Death Note cast Nat Wolff, an actor best known for YA flicks, as Light Yagami. Wolff is not a highly marketable actor but is a fact that Hollywood is willing to take bigger risks with unknown white actors.

Let’s also debunk the marketability argument by looking at two recent Hercules films. Kellan Lutz, best known for a supporting role in the Twilight series, starred in The Legend of Hercules (2014). Meanwhile, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starred in The Hercules (2014). If all people cared about were how marketable the actors are, no one should have complained about The Rock’s race with the casting. The Rock is arguably the most marketable actor in Hollywood and people’s complaints about his skin colour on sites like YouTube and IMDB are not the comments of colour-blind people.

Likewise, I have always ignored the argument about people of colour not being “relatable” enough. Of course, being able to relate to a character can be crucial to enjoying a film. However, there are many great characters that are not necessarily relatable. How relatable is Optimus Prime? There is the assumption that a main character has to be relatable in order for people to see a film. If people will pay to see aliens and robots, why is seeing a a person of colour such a stretch?

Additionally, looks should not dictate how relatable someone is. I can relate to white Peter Parker, for his struggles with money and girls. Even when I can’t relate to a character, I can still enjoy a film. I can’t relate to Batman, with his level of personal loss, wealth, fitness etc. Yet I love watching (some versions) of him on screen.

Now let’s move on the crux of this twitter user’s argument. Free-market economics. Like many people, he argues people simply wouldn’t pay to watch the film without big American stars. He also conflates American with white, which many people continue to do.

I am sure that many people probably thought that a film like Straight Outta Comptom (2015) would never be a box-office success, even with a relatively modest budget of $50 million. Many people pointed to Red Tails (2012) as the definitive example of what would happen if enough white people weren’t involved. “All the white viewers in America and worldwide won’t pay to see a film with so many black people”. Yet Straight Outta Compton was a success and introduced audiences to new, talented and non-white actors. Straight Outta Compton marketed it’s story well, making people acknowledge the race of the actors but also put aside any prejudice or hesitance in order to see the story. If you are interested in a film’s story, setting etc, but decide not to watch it because   the main character isn’t white, there is something wrong with your head and Hollywood needs to stop pandering to this mentality.

How are minorities ever supposed to get bigger roles and become “marketable” leading men if they are never given the opportunity? Do they all have to settle for supporting roles with white leads and hope that is enough to someday make a name for themselves? Even if a film takes place in China, Hollywood makes sure a white man is there to lead the way.