There was a giddiness ignited in me when I logged onto IMDbPro yesterday to discover that, after months of vocal condemnation of whitewashing and through the ridiculous “I Am Major” campaign, director Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell earned a measly $19 million its opening weekend. The picture came in No. 3 in the box office, grossing almost two times less than runner-up Beauty and the Beast and (the best part) the winner: Boss Baby.
Yes, for all the talk and excuses that a movie requires a white lead to find a significant audience (and thus, financial success), a movie where a white woman plays the role originally occupied by a Japanese character was beat out by an animated picture starring a talking baby.
It cannot really be said that Ghost in the Shell did not perform well in its first weekend because people boycotted the movie for its practice of whitewashing. But what can be said is that audiences, the elusive and faceless target whom producers with every picture hope to woo, didn’t care either way. This, as passive as it seems, is critically important.
It’s impossible to measure how audiences feel about the practice of whitewashing, but it is possible to measure how much they’ll pay for it. And by and large, last weekend they did not. If producers want to talk about money, then it won’t take anti-whitewashing protests, think pieces, social media posts or campaigns to get their attention. What it will take is financial apathy, and last weekend proved it to be true: People did not care about Ghost in the Shell. Maybe it wouldn’t have performed better with an actual Japanese actress, but it sure didn’t do well with Scarlett Johansson as the lead. And this enough should be hard proof to the industry that starring white protagonists does not guarantee a good weekend in the box office.
How, then, can Hollywood explain Hidden Figures, a movie about black female mathematicians at NASA, which became the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee of 2016? Or the actual Best Picture winner Moonlight, which experienced the highest per-theater averages for the same year? And what about diverse movies like the Fast and Furious franchise, Star Wars: Rogue One and Moana, which continue to experience financial success worldwide?
Sure, call these anomalies. But then again, there are so many of them. And there are so many flops of movies starring white people and white people replacing people of color. Does Hollywood think Aloha will be remembered for anything other than Emma Stone pretending to be a woman named Allison Ng? What about box office failures Alice Through the Looking Glass, 2016’s Ben-Hur, Deepwater Horizon and The BFG? Why do movies starring white people get so many chances, and why isn’t anyone pointing to Moonlight, Get Out and Moana and saying, “Look — here is what works and here is what people want”?
For too long has goodness and good art been associated with white men and women, and for too long has Hollywood’s producing practices been based on this unfounded mythology. The latter half of 2016 saw a revival in critically acclaimed and financially successful films starring actors of color, and this combined with Ghost in the Shell’s muted reception surely signals an end — if not of Hollywood’s habit of erasing minority voices, then at least of audiences’ tolerance of it.
Still, when we call one thing the panacea to industry-standard racism, we ignore the systemically prejudiced institution that has pervaded this country for centuries. Nevertheless, it’s time Hollywood starts to listen.
I am tired of excuses made by Hollywood players who erase and ignore diverse voices because they are not, in their minds, monetarily valuable. Because when those decisions are made and groups of people never see themselves on screen, they begin to believe they themselves are not valuable.
And here’s what happens when the industry looks at its products purely as money-making schemes: The quality suffers. And what’s worse, this suffocating mindset puts the American viewership in one big group — a faceless, colorless mass. It treats American moviegoers as a mindless body attracted only to shine and star power, bright explosions and loud booms and only the next great feat in visual effects.
The opposite of that — the unconditional and noble belief that audiences are intelligent and know how to define a good movie — that is something the advent of television’s golden age seizes on. When a movie is good, it does not matter to the audience who the characters are. Not the color of their skin, not their gender, not who they love or not where they come from. Good storytelling renders all of those factors void because if it’s good, people will watch.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every other Tuesday.