The announcement last week that Ed Skrein would be appearing in the Hellboy reboot as Major Ben Daimio didn’t exactly go down well. Fans were quick to call out whitewashing, as a character of East Asian heritage was to be played by someone whose roots are decidedly more European, being of Jewish Austrian and English descent.
Heroically, Skrein decided not to follow in the footsteps of certain other modern actors (cough cough Scarlett Johansson) cough), and has elected to pull out of the movie, putting as much distance as possible between himself and this pretty awkward controversy.
In a statement on Twitter, Skrein stated that he’d originally accepted the role without knowing anything about the character from the Hellboy comics (which is fair, considering that Ben Daimio isn’t exactly a mainstream part of popular culture as a whole), and that once he’d realized this was going to upset people, Skrein no longer wanted anything to do with the part.
— Ed Skrein (@edskrein) August 28, 2017
For their part, Lionsgate, the studio behind this new Hellboy, is eager to try and ride this goodwill by making it clear that they, too, want to put this little issue behind them.
“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.”
So, all good, right? Maybe Hollywood is finally realizing that you can’t just give a Japanese American role to a white British guy and call everything good.
Except, of course, that the role was genuinely given to Ed Skrein, and that he accepted it initially without question. Perhaps the actor can be forgiven a little ignorance, perhaps not spotting the important cultural roots of a name like Daimio, but it would have been nice if he’d so much as Googled the character before signing up for the movie.
Similarly, as much as Lionsgate claims that they don’t want to be insensitive about this whole issue, they were still very, very insensitive. They cast a white guy to play an Asian American, and there’s no indication that this plan would have changed had Skrein himself not brought up the issue with them.
It’s astounding that movie producers continue to make this mistake in the modern era. Already this year we’ve seen Ghost in the Shell (spoiler alert) tell the story of a Han Chinese woman in the robot body of a Westerner, and the frustrating Iron Fist debacle which, while technically not whitewashing, still feels pretty sour as we continue to see that the supposed “best” Chinese martial artist in the MCU is inexplicably a white guy who clearly doesn’t actually know any martial arts.
If anything, Ed Skrein’s decision to step down from Hellboy is more about the power of online movements than it is about people in Hollywood actually developing a brain when it comes to casting.
The lesson here is that if comic book fans shout loud enough, they’ll get their way – a morale that we all need to do our best to try to use for the public good.
Hollywood isn’t going to change until fans of diversity rally behind our favorite properties, and push for more diversity – alongside better storytelling and a greater focus on characters, rather than marketing gimmicks.
As it turns out, online movements are gaining greater strength, and it’s our duty as fans to use this newfound power to make the movie experience a more inclusive, enjoyable experience for everybody.
Maybe, if we’re every lucky, Hollywood will eventually catch onto the idea that you can’t cast a white person as a person of color without it looking like a horrific Tropic Thunder parody that’s come to life.