Cultural Appropriation: That Knife Cuts Both Ways

by Buzz on 11/04/2017

There’s been a lot of hoopla recently of the Scarlett Johansson version of Ghost In The Shell crashing & burning at the box office.

A lot of the blame seems to be placed on the controversy of “whitewashing” (i.e., retelling a story originally set in an Asian or other non-European derived culture with an American or European cast, in particular a white American or European cast).[1]

There are times when claims of whitewashing are valid, such as when it’s another form of black/yellow/brown/redfacing (i.e., an actor attempting to realistically play an ethnicity they don’t belong to).[2]

As a rough rule of thumb, when the story hinges on taking place in a specific time and place and with a specific ethnic casting in mind, it becomes whitewashing when one casts a non-ethnic actor in an otherwise ethnic role with the intent of appealing to the audience.

But what happens when you take the core idea of a story and transplant it to a different setting with similar but different characters?

MacBeth is referred to as “the Scottish tragedy” but Akira Kurosawa moved it to feudal Japan and called it Throne Of Blood and nobody called shenanigans on it.

To show he wasn’t a literary snob, he took Ed McBain’s[3] 87th Precinct pulp crime novel, King’s Ransom, and turned it into a contemporary Tokyo crime thriller called High And Low.

Kurosawa allowed himself to be inspired by the writings of Dashiell Hammet — most notably his novel Red Harvest about a Depression era hero in the Midwest who pits two gangs against one another — to create Yojimbo, about a masterless ronin who pits two yakuza clans against one another, and that inspired Sergio Leone to make the Italian Western A Fistful Of Dollars about a bounty hunter who pits two bands of desperados against one another, and that inspired Walter Hill to make Last Man Standing

… about a Depression era hero in the Midwest who pits two gangs against one another,

I ax ya, hooz zoomin’ hoo?

Three Godfathers has been filmed numerous times as a Western…and once as an anime set in contemporary 21st century Tokyo (Tokyo Godfathers).

 La Femme Nikita was a dazzling 1990 French spy thriller…but Hong Kong did it sooooo much better as the kinetic 1991 action flick, The Black Cat, which was certainly more enjoyable than the 1993 official Americanized remake, Point Of No Return.

Do we even have to mention Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven?

the call me trinity

cleopatra_jones_poster_01

The point is, we cannot stop cross-cultural appropriation:
People see something, like it, and try to duplicate it.

They Call her Cleopatra Wong

It’s one thing when a drunken frat boy puts on a sombrero and loudly proclaims himself “the Frito bandito” in order to mock working class Mexican-Americans…

It’s another thing when an African-American actor uses an identical sombrero to help add authenticity to a Hispanic character he is playing Off Broadway…

And it’s a third thing still when a Chinese-American tourist buys an identical sombrero in Cancun to take home to wear when she’s gardening.

As always, the context is important.

Absolutely jump dead in the @%#& of anybody blowing off minority voices simply because they think it would be an easier sell with a whitebread American in the role.

But accept all really good ideas are universal, and however well done one particular expression of an idea may be, there’s no reason someone else can’t do it just as well in a different manner.

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[1] I blame the failure on something entirely different. I’m a huge fan of the original anime, Ghost In The Shell, and think it is one of the most philosophically and psychologically profound films ever made, all wrapped up in a colorful action-adventure sci-fi package. But the format of the original Ghost In The Shell is crucial to its success: Being done throughout in a 2D anime style everything — from the most mundane detail to the most spectacular sci-fi elements — carries the same weight. That’s to say a character quietly sipping a cup of tea is just as real as that same character splintering apart a few seconds later to reveal they’re an android. As a result, the cinematic universe the anime Ghost In The Shell inhabits is equally realistic and believable at all levels, and as a result the audience is not yanked out of the story when they see something spectacular, asking themselves “How did they do that?” but rather goes, “Cool!” and keeps up with the flow of the story.
One may fairly ask why superhero movies and Disney’s recent live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast succeed, and in those examples I would say it’s because the audience recognizes the huge amount of CGI involved and sees the human performers as just motion capture for a stylized animated experience. Ghost In The Shell, while based on a highly influential anime derived from a popular manga series, is simply not well enough known for audiences to see Ms Johansson as the mo-cap cartoon character but rather as Scarlett Johansson herself. Compare and contrast with the early James Bond movies or original Star Wars where the film makers wisely convinced the audience of the reality of their fanciful characters and stories by surrounding them with practical props / vehicles / sets instead of relying heavily on opticals and CGI as latter films in those series have.

[2] “-facing” is not a 100% clear cut issue and depends largely on context. No one objects if a high school rounds out its cast of MacBeth with non-Scottish students or allows females to play minor roles written as male. And for certain types of satire, when the –facing in question is shown as a Very Bad Idea, one can slither by. By and large, however, attempting to pass off one ethnicity as another is somewhat grating at best and blatantly offensive at worst.
Still, how does one explain cosplay, eh? Cosplay is a celebration of a character, not an attempt to actually pass as that character. One can cosplay across ethnic lines so long as one does not attempt an egregiously mock the character’s ethnicity or use offensive types of make-up effects. Ergo, a non-Asian wearing eyefolds to portray an Asian character is unacceptable, wearing an Asian style wig is okay; painting one’s skin black to cosplay Blade is unacceptable, painting it black to cosplay Nightcrawler isn’t. It becomes more complicated when a cosplay character may be wearing stylized ethnic make-up such as a geisha: Is it mockery to powder one’s face stark white in that case?

[3] “Ed McBain” was the mystery / crime fiction pen name of prolific mainstream author Evan Hunter…and “Evan Hunter” was the respectable whitebread pen name Salvatore Albert Lombino adopted to break into mainstream American fiction.

 

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