Breaking Asian American news today: Nicholas Hoult doppelganger Ed Skrein turned down a supporting role as Ben Daimio, a Japanese American character created by white comic book authors who will appear in a completely unnecessary Hellboy reboot. It’s either a magnanimous show of respect about the issue of media representation, or a canny PR move with little downside and major upside for both Skrein and Lionsgate. It doesn’t take much to perceive the truth here: a white actor and a white-run studio is riding the wave of POC hashtag activism to savior status.
Despite Skrein’s dubious claim of having personal skin in the Hollywood POC representation game — his self-described “mixed heritage” is half Austrian half English — his personal sacrifice in giving up a movie role should not be taken lightly. SAG credits are hard to come by, and even harder to give up for a cause that is not even your own.
While Skrein deserves applause and recognition from those in the Asian American community who have a personal stake in Hollywood employment opportunities, the response from the broader community has been completely over the top. My social media feeds are buzzing with “Whoa this is BIG” linking to publications such as The Atlantic, WIRED, The Guardian, The Washington Post, as well as virtually every Hollywood-centric publication out there celebrating Skrein’s decision as a major turning point for the POC cause. Here’s one particularly cringey example of the overreaction:
Ed Skrein himself pulled the most epic power move in the history of white male movie-stardom: he quit the role. BECAUSE HE REALIZED HE WAS INAPPROPRIATELY CAST AS A JAPANESE MAN. Cue up the Hallelujah chorus. God Almighty, someone stood up and did the right thing for once.
Jesus Fucking Christ. If you want to thank a white man for epic power moves in getting the Japanese American story told, thank a real bad ass like Dore Schary for getting Bad Day At Black Rock made. Let’s be clear: Ed Skrein is not the Oskar Schindler of Asian Americans, and everyone needs to chill the fuck out. Yes, Skrein set a nice precedent here that has resonated throughout Hollywood. But this is just more of the Hollywood game. The Asian American media rep game is one which is stacked such that only white producers and actors can really win. In the case of Hellboy, every decision was made by Lionsgate — a white-run studio — and Skrein himself. Asian Americans may claim victory in having applied enough pressure to influence, but this was all about Skrein and Lionsgate, and barely anything to do with Asian American activism. It’s worth reading Lionsgate’s insipid and self-congratulatory press release about the matter:
Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.
If Asian American hashtag activism was the driver of this, Lionsgate had no interest in recognizing it, and they made no reference to Asian Americans whatsoever. To them, this was a virtue play that finally opened up their eyes to the deep sensitives around “authenticity and ethnicity.” After all, a “mixed heritage” white guy said it. But when Asian Americans ourselves make real demands, the response from the suits is a bit less “woke” and a lot more dismissive. CBS’s statement of regret around Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park’s claim of inequitable compensation reads like a corporate Dear John letter:
Daniel and Grace have been important and valued members of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ for seven seasons. We did not want to lose them and tried very hard to keep them with offers for large and significant salary increases. While we could not reach an agreement, we part ways with tremendous respect for their talents on screen, as well as their roles as ambassadors for the show off screen, and with hopes to work with them again in the near future.
Read between the lines and CBS’s position is clear: we ponied up serious cash and they still said no, but we’re good generous people and we still like them even though they’re overvaluing themselves. There is no recognition at all about equally “sensitive” issues like minority under-compensation. And compare the media reaction. Instead of a media blitz of Hollywood patting its own back, we get the New York Times finding an Asian American television critic from Hawaii who bluntly said that Kim and Park were not worth the money.
Media representation and POC casting is a Hollywood game where the rules and outcomes are determined entirely by the power establishment. It is not real activism, but fake activism taking place in a fake world. It is as truly activist as voting in the NBA All-Star ballot.
There are real social stakes to whitewashing in the movies, but let’s get some perspective here. This was a minor role for a character nobody has ever even heard of, in a movie nobody cares about. Someone send me a picture of a Ben Daimio cosplay please, because Google Image brings up nothing. Ben Daimio is a white creation, a grotesque Orientalist caricature of a man with half a face, a creepy preserved baby he consumes as medicine, and a grandmother named The Crimson Lotus. I feel sorry for the Asian American actor who gets to play this racist abomination, to be honest.
There was very little at stake here, yet Hollywood and its attendant media has amplified this to 11 because this is one case where it looks like it really did do the right thing. But we still have radio silence on all the other instances where it did the wrong thing, in movies and roles that mattered a lot more. Asian Americans have invested a lot of emotion and work into raising the pressure on Hollywood on whitewashing, let’s be mindful about taking our credit and checking the tendency for Hollywood to manufacture big wins for itself off of minimal efforts.