Cast For Titanic Director’s ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Begs The Question Of Whether Or Not It’s Okay To Change The Race Of Minority Characters
It’s no secret that Latinas are severely underrepresented in television and media. In fact, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only seven percent of 2017’s top 100 films featured Latina actresses. For this reason, a film like “Alita: Battle Angle” should be a big deal but the movie’s Latina casting has many claiming Asian erasure. “Alita: Battle Angel” is a futuristic cyberpunk film produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau. The movie adapted from the popular Yukito Kishiro manga “Gunnm” is set in a sci-fi-filled future, cyborg Alita struggles to find her place in a world she has no memory of. Out February 14, 2019, this film has been in the works for years. Pre-production began in the early 2000s but was delayed due to Cameron’s work on “Avatar” and its sequels. The film is directed by Sundance Festival Award-winning director Robert Rodriguez.
With a pack of creative behemoths at its back, the new film brings a mass of brilliant storylines and stunning visuals. However, it’s the cast behind “Alita” that’s creating buzz.
The role of the film’s main character and futuristic cyborg is played by Peruvian-Canadian actress Rosa Salazar of “Bird Box”.Kodansha Comics
Using motion capture technology, the film uses CGI to depict Alita in her robotic form. Despite the fact that so many minorities often see the occurrence of a Latina star in a major motion picture as cause to celebrate, there are concerns over the issue of non-Japanese women taking on the role of a character from a Japanese source. Erasure of Alita’s Japanese background has been met with criticism and backlash since the film’s early production days. The controversy was first sparked back in 2016 with Salazar’s initial casting. Critics were quick to say that the casting of a non-Asian as Alita was another example of Asian erasure in Hollywood. The debate gained new life after the first trailer for the movie was released in December 2017.
This time, it was Alita’s overwhelmingly large eyes that gave viewers pause. Large, expressive eyes are a stylistic element used in Japanese anime and manga. Some viewers felt that keeping this characteristic but with a non-Asian character was tantamount to whitewashing the film.
“It signals to the audience, ‘Yes this is Japanese and we’re not trying to erase the source material,’” Vice contributor Carli Velocci wrote of the new movie. “Yet that’s what they’re doing. Alita’s eyes are the only thing that is distinctly Japanese about the movie, which features no main Japanese actors or characters.”
Whitewashing has been an issue before in major Hollywood films such as “Ghost In The Shell” and “Aloha.” In both of these examples, characters confirmed to be Asian were played by white women. Marvel’s “Iron Fist” and “Doctor Strange” are also guilty of this casting error.
These examples make it seem like “Alita” is a clear case of whitewashing but the situation is more nuanced than that.Twitter / @unnecesarus
To better understand the controversy of this claim, we need to explore the origin of the film’s story. Yukito Kishiro created “Gunnm” in Japan during the 1990s but the manga doesn’t take place during that same era. Instead, “Gunnm” is set in a futuristic world in a city called Iron City. This dystopian city is located in what is essentially the midwest. Despite heritage, Kishiro didn’t write a story with explicitly Asian characters.
“The author, Yukito Kishiro, did something very different: He wrote manga that is not set in an Asian world,” producer Landau shared. “He wrote it set in a place called Iron City, which is a melting pot. He actually set it in Kansas.”
It’s not unusual for creators to set their worlds in places unique or foreign to their own homes. Manga and anime especially have entire subgenres that set stories in far off places. For example, the “Gundam” series and many other titles of mecha Animation are often set in outer space or a futuristic society. Other subgenres of sci-fi animation also follow this pattern.
Still, some fans argue that “Alita: Battle Angel” is a Japanese product which means there is an expectation of race.Twitter / @nico_nothere
Julian Abagond, a New York blogger who writes about race and culture, explained this way of thinking.
“If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being,” he wrote. “Americans apply this thinking to Japanese drawings. But to the Japanese the Default Human Being is Japanese! So they feel no need to make their characters ‘look Asian.’ They just have to make them look like people and everyone in Japan will assume they are Japanese – no matter how improbable their physical appearance.”
Understanding this cultural position adds another layer to the question of Alita’s race. Still, if she is Asian, explicitly or not, this raises a new debate. Replacing marginalized people with white actors has been an issue in Hollywood since the beginning of the film. White characters in “yellowface” were used to represent Asian characters in media. It’s an act that is overwhelmingly panned in today’s society.
So, if we’ve established that it’s not okay for white characters to play minorities, where do we stand on the subject of minorities playing other minorities?20th Century Fox
Taking traditionally white characters and reimagining them as people of color has become a recurring trope in media. In “Deadpool 2,” fan favorite Domino – who is white in comics – was played by black actress Zazie Beetz. “Spider-man: Homecoming” featured Zendaya as white character Mary Jane Watson. These changes bring a much need dose of representation to products otherwise lacking diversity
However, is it okay to make similar changes to a character who may also be a minority? With Alita’s unknown, possibly Asian ethnicity, does casting her as a Latina add representation or erase her true culture?
Since the situation is so nuanced, there’s no clear answer when it comes to Alita but the general answer would be erasure. Changing characters from one underrepresented group to another doesn’t further the cause of seeing our stories depicted in media. Instead, it just perpetuates the deletion of narratives that need to be heard.
Regardless of this controversy, early reviews of the futuristic “Alita: Battle Angel” say it’s sure to be a blockbuster thriller. As a result, maybe a big box office will lead to even more movies featuring Latina star power. Only, next time, hopefully, our characters will be featured in stories of our own.
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