Update: Natalie Portman has responded to claims that her casting in the sci-fi film Annihilation is yet another example of whitewashing in Hollywood. In an interview with Yahoo, Portman admitted that she "didn't know" the original character was written as someone with Asian heritage.
"That does sound problematic," she said. "But, I'm hearing it here first."
Yahoo also asked Jennifer Jason Leigh about her thoughts on whitewashing, to which she responded, "It's probably a valid criticism. I didn't know that."
Portman took her statement one step further and admitted that she believes "we need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of Blacks on film, and women — in particular, women of color, Native Americans."
"We just don't have enough representation," Portman added. "And also, these categories, like, white and non-white is totally imagined classifications but have real-life consequences."
Though Jason Leigh said she thought director Alex Garland "cast who he thought was right for each role," she agreed that "there should more parts for everyone and more diversity in all films."
This story was originally published on Feb. 13, 2018 at 3:44 p.m.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, advocacy groups Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) and American Indians in Film and Television (AIFT) have criticized writer and director Alex Garland for casting Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in roles written for Asian and Native American women in the original books.
"Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book," Alieesa Badreshia, one of MANAA's board members, said in a statement obtained by THR. "He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters, and those roles could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those communities."
THR reports that in the novels, Lena (Portman) comes from a family with "strong Asian heritage on one side," and Dr. Ventress (Jason Leigh) is "half-American Indian/half-Caucasian." Neither Portman nor Jason Leigh seem to embody the physical traits of these characters.
"We are not surprised by the Whack-a-Mole diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up," he said in a statement to THR.
Annihilation is far from being the first film to be criticized for casting white people in roles written for Asians or Native Americans. Two films that instantly come to mind are Ghost In A Shell, which cast Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character, and The Lone Ranger, which cast Johnny Depp as a cartoonish Native American.
Some have argued that it's the way the story is portrayed, and not by whom, that is most important when adapting books, plays, or graphic novels into film. But, the point that groups like MANAA and AFIT are making is that white actors are already granted ample opportunities in Hollywood, whereas people of Asian or Native American descent often aren't.
Part of the #TimesUp movement that sometimes gets overshadowed is that people of color need better representation in entertainment and media, whether they're the ones writing the stories or acting them out on screen. The more that we create inclusive spaces, the richer and more impactful our art and, in turn, our culture will be.