Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Is It Really Whitewashing?

I know this is probably sensitive, but I have a question.

All summer, a lot of people have expressed the sentiment that casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness is whitewashing; taking an ethnic character and casting a white actor in the role. My question, though: is it, actually?

The reason I ask is this: in the film (and correct me if I'm wrong, please, because it's been a while since I saw it), I don't remember anyone actually establishing that Khan is supposed to be Indian. I don't remember that coming up and being either integral to his character or essential to the plot in any way.

I'm not saying this to be a dick, I'm just bringing this up because I feel like people are making an assumption based on (a) the way the character was portrayed on the original series and (b) his name.

People have been complaining about the way JJ Abrams has been borrowing so heavily from the original series and original films in his reboot (and I get it), but to then turn around and attempt to hold him accountable for not doing that with one character (a character that, it's too often not pointed out, was played by a Mexican actor originally, as if ethnicities are simply interchangeable) seems weird. I understand how sensitive we are to this now on the internet, but I'm just wondering... how do we know Khan in this reboot is supposed to be anything other than a British white guy?

Again, I'm not trying to be a dick and poke a hole in an argument that I understand. I just don't know what we're basing this off, because I don't remember anything in the film to indicate Khan's ethnic leanings.

And just... just don't tell me it's because of his name, because saying a white guy can't play someone named Khan is like saying an Indian guy can't play someone named Gerard. It's a weird assumption I'm not comfortable with.

I'm not saying whitewashing characters isn't stupid and offensive. I'm just saying that I'm not sure this incident was whitewashing.

But as I've said before: I'm just some white guy and I know there's privilege that comes with that, and one of those is not always being aware of these things when they happen.


Roger Owen Green said...

I don't think a white guy should play Martin Luther King, or T'Challa or any number of folks, real or fictional. Yet Khan is not on that list. It's because RM wasn't playing a Latin character. If he were, that'd be another thing altogether.

Nathaniel W said...

I don't recall anything explicitly saying "Khan is Indian" in the new movie except I assume that either Khan himself or Old Spock must identify him by his full name, which also has an Indian (or at least Asian?) surname. At the very least they explicitly (both by calling up Old Spock and by riffing so hard on the end of WoK) tie this Khan to the original timeline's Khan. In "Space Seed" we learn that he was the ruler of Asia and the Middle East before he was frozen and shipped off, which, coupled with the Asian name and the obvious dark makeup & Indian wig they have Montalband wearing(toned-down or eliminated when he returned to the role in WoK), makes it pretty clear that the original Khan was supposed to be a South Asian superman.

This is certainly confused by the fact that they had a Latin actor playing a South Asian character in brown face in the original episode, which I guess tends to get excused by fans because the practice was more common back then (and resulted in a great, iconic performance by Montalban). The STID folks obviously couldn't do the same thing this time around, but instead of just going ahead and getting a great Asian actor for the role, they made the confusing choice of just casting a white British man in the role full-stop. (I do wonder if they blundered into it by trying to avoid making a brown person a terrorist in their big summer movie.)

Ultimately, I think the argument is that saying a white guy can't play someone named Khan isn't exactly like saying an Indian guy can't play someone named Gerard because there are so many more white guys playing all sorts of roles, making this kind of casting a deliberately exclusionary choice. I just think this is something that we white folks disingenuously demand "fairness" or parity in, when really we have a pop-culture that is heavily tilted in favor of portraying white characters over a more accurate and representative variety of races (goes the same for dudes who complain about female-centric entertainment). My thinking is, why not cast Spider-Man as a black guy? There's a zillion other white characters in mainstream pop culture. Seems counterproductive or destructive to go the other way and turn non-white characters white, no matter how innocent your intentions.

SamuraiFrog said...

See, I don't think it was deliberately exclusionary; I honestly just think it didn't occur to anyone to do it that way. It doesn't seem conscious to me, but born out of that privilege I was referring to, which is just that Abrams, Lindelof, etc just didn't think of it. Like it didn't occur to them.

I guess it doesn't necessarily bother me because Khan's race didn't seem remotely integral to the plot, so it didn't seem like they purposely avoided it (although the idea of avoiding a brown terrorist character might have played into it; I suppose there's also a chance that someone might have thought having an Indian actor in the role would have made the big surprise reveal too obvious...). I don't know, I'm just not convinced it was deliberate. They changed enough of the origin (from war criminal/Asian prince to military weapons project gone wrong) that I feel like the character's race doesn't matter. I'm not saying it couldn't have been an Indian/Asian actor, just that it didn't necessarily have to be.

That said, imagine what Shahrukh Khan could've done with the role. Or Jimi Mistry. Or a lot of good actors.

New York Erratic said...

I totally agree with Samurifrog here.

I'd go one step further and say that race really doesn't matter at all in science fiction unless it's integral to the plot.

It's even okay within limits for historical things, imho. Imagine all the great Yul Brynner movies without Yul Brynner.

Autumn said...

Okay, I'm not saying the character should or should not be portrayed as a white guy, BUT...

Isn't the original series set more than 250 years in the future? So isn't it possible that it would be perfectly normal for a white british guy to have a name like Khan at that point in history? And lived that life?

I don't think race was an issue, I think they wanted to get someone hip and current in their movie and everyone loves Benedict right now due to the current Sherlock Madness. I think they saw him as someone they could have in their film and so they shoved him into a role regardless of the original race.

If the movie was set in the past where it wouldn't make sense, or was a real historical character I might have an issue. But who is anyone to say what race will be associated with what names in a fictional universe hundreds of years from now? And are we saying it would have been okay if he was played by a Hispanic person, because that was accurate to the original character? It's not like Tonto where they actually expected you to believe Johnny Depp was native american, they were just like "high five, we got a relevant hot actor in our movie...ratings will skyrocket!" Sometimes everything isn't about race.

SamuraiFrog said...

That Tonto casting is really egregious. Especially when Adam Beach would've been so perfect in that role. Or any role, really. I really need to see more of Adam Beach in movies, and I have for the last 15 years.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Autumn: The problem with your supposition is that Khan is actually a late-20th century man who is put into suspended animation for 250 years, so naming conventions in the 23rd century aren't really relevant. I know, I know, I'll take off my Star Trek Geek hat now. :)

Space Seed was made in a time when people didn't really give a crap about such things. This was just five years after Breakfast at Tiffany's gave us Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese guy, in one of the most painful examples of such a thing ever. For Wrath of Khan, you had to have Montalban back. It just wouldn't have made sense any other way.

But now...look, I like Cumberbatch, but I'm generally of the view that if we know what a character's race is -- regardless of whether or not it's a plot point -- then the actor used should be of that persuasion. It's not like they couldn't find an Indian actor to play a nicely malevolent Khan, and it would have been neat to see a new face in such a prominent part. (Or, if you have to have Cumberbatch, don't even have him be Khan. It's not like his being Khan added one damned thing to that awfully-written movie, anyway.)

Now I'm thinking of other examples...Louis Jourdan, a Frenchman, playing an "exiled Afghan prince" in Octopussy, for example....

SamuraiFrog said...

I liked the movie, but yeah, having Harrison turn out to really be Khan is just trading on one of Star Trek's great successes as a shorthand for the characterization.

There's a lot to unpack in the casting and in even using the character.

Merrick said...

I'm with SamuraiFrog: in the movie, it's not established that he's Indian.
Many people would say that he is, only becasue he was on the old movie and the TV show. But to everyone that feels the need to tie this movie to the previous "chronology" or universe: why should you? The movie is based on a TV show, not a followup of the TV show. That is to say: it's like the movies "Charlie's angels" (2000), "Speed Racer" (2008), "The A-Team" (2010) "The fugitive" (1993) (and it's NOT like the movies "Get smart again (1989), "Star trek: the motion picture" (1979) or "The X-files: fight the future" (1998), which could all be called followup of their series, or, in some cases, movies that exist between TV seasons, like a big episode).

Autumn said...

I completely forgot about the "late 20th century" thing, you are completely right.

And oh wow did I forget about Mickey Rooney, oh wow. Despite watching that movie about once a year I block it out....

New York Erratic said...

Am I the only person with friends that have unusual names or gave unusual names to their kids?

One friend gave her kid the name "Parker" after Spiderman. I had a friend in college named Rebekah who was the tallest, bondest non-Jewish girl you ever met.

I've known black people with Russian names (e.g. Alexis), Korean people with Anglo names (e.g. Angela), and white people with straight up made up names (CarriAyne - with the capital letter in the middle and no space. It's on her passport.)

So Khan can be late 20th century and white. Or black. Or Indian. Or Middle Eastern.

(If you're going to get crazy picky, how is it that he was in cryogenic stasis in space in 1996 and still from Earth?)

SamuraiFrog said...

Somewhat off-topic, but if I'd ever had a daughter I intended to name her either Ayla (from Clan of the Cave Bear, one of my favorite female characters in literature) or Atari.

Never envisioned having a son that much. I guess because I have three sisters and mainly grew up around women.

New York Erratic said...

When I was about 10 I LOVED those books. She finally wrote the last few a couple a years ago. I haven't read them yet.

I think Atari would actually be a cool name if you mixed it with the right middle name.

Back on Star Trek, what gets me is if you're going to question directing choices along these lines, why not question why Uhura's hair is straightened? That really annoys me in the reboots.

Roger Owen Green said...

NYE - oh, no. Conversations about black people's hair is a WHOLE 'nother smoke. Toxic on many boards I have read.

New York Erratic said...

Well, I'm going there.

It's one thing to change the race of one character. I don't see that as a problem.

Making every one of the non-white characters look as white as possible strikes me as a little freaking weird.

And you know they're not going to add black characters as an alien race. I strongly doubt anyone making decisions has the guts for anything but white Vulcans, Romulans, etc.