The first images of Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action Hollywood remake of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (the character has been renamed ‘Major’), have reignited the debate about minorities in Hollywood films. This comes on the heels of the #Oscarssowhite controversy regarding the lack of minority nominees at the Academy Awards, and the uproar about Emma Stone as a half-Chinese character in last year’s Aloha.
That there’s such uproar is positive for minorities, but there is slightly more to it than magically getting the right proportion of representation in big Hollywood movies.
For a start, the #Oscarssowhite controversy was notably spearheaded by African Americans. There was no comparable outcry by Latinos, even though their population in the US is higher than the African American population, although they would of course have had less to complain about as the Best Director winner was a Mexican. Furthermore, what most critics and filmmakers were in agreement with was that none of the nominated films had necessarily been chosen through racial preference.
John Singleton, the first African American director to be nominated for an Academy Award, was quick to point out a few insightful truths: first, the limitation of slots for eligibility mean that some films will inevitably miss the cut, and secondly, that often films without Oscar nominations will last longer in the collective memory than those with them (comparing Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing and Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy, disregarding the significance of awards shows).
The problem with the Awards is that so many were based on true stories about white characters – real figures were 60 per cent of acting nominees, and of the remaining eight nominees perhaps three played roles in which gender was not also prescribed (though this figure could be subjective).
The problem is a systemic one – people are less willing to take cinematic risks because of declining attendance in US cinemas. Though the onslaught of multimillion dollar tentpole blockbusters seems to suggest otherwise, the free availability of streaming has put attendance into decline.
So this is why Scarlett Johansson is in Ghost in the Shell. The fans will clamour and shout for minority representation, but without her, they probably wouldn’t be getting the film in the first place.
The above statement is recognised by the original manga’s publisher Kodansha, whose Director of International Business stated that Johansson was “well cast” and provided the opportunity ‘for a Japanese property to be seen around the world.” Conversely, he also (perhaps unwittingly) alluded to the systemic problem in Hollywood by saying that he “never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place”.
This would explain his reaction: a Hollywood film would obviously cast a Hollywood actress, regardless of its source material. This begs the question: should we be worried about it if he isn’t?
To conclude, diversity in Hollywood has a way to go, but it is worth noting that misrepresentation has come under fire in other countries. It is Hollywood’s international presence which invites international scrutiny.