In Alex Garland's upcoming movie Annihilation, Natalie Portman plays a woman with "Asian heritage." Portman, who is white, has no Asian heritage, which has sparked an internet controversy framing her casting as the next in a long line of diverse roles being "white-washed" out of films. "White-washing" is when a role originally meant for a person of color, or of diverse background, is given to a prominent white actor or actress. Garland, however, has fought back against critics, saying this is not an example of the practice.
It turns out there was a strange and unfortunate set of circumstances that led to Portman's casting in a non-white role. Annihilation is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name, the first in his Southern Reach Trilogy. In the novel, Portman's character is known only as The Biologist (in the film, she's named Lena). The novel's story is told from The Biologist's perspective, no reference is made to her heritage or physical characteristics. It isn't until the second book in the series that the reader receives this line:
The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.
When writing the screenplay for Annihilation, Garland admits he intentionally only read the first book in the series. This fact checks out. In fact, Garland wrote his script before the Annihilation sequels were even published. The director conceded to IndieWire that his own internal biases may have influenced Portman's casting, but that he hadn't meant to intentionally white-wash the role:
The characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities. I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before. There was no studio pressure to cast white. The casting choices were entirely mine.” He continued, “As a middle-aged white man, I can believe I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are. But there was nothing cynical or conspiratorial about the way I cast this movie.
Portman didn't learn about her character's in-book ethnicity until long after she finished shooting. During an interview, she was told about the white-washing controversy by Yahoo! Entertainment, and commented:
I’m hearing that for the first time. That does sound problematic, but I’m hearing it here first. We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women — and particularly women of color — Native Americans. I mean, we just don’t have enough representation… I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.
Garland is receiving harsh criticism from several groups, including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, who have denounced him for "not being true and honest to the characters in the book." In their words, he "exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character." Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, also commented:
Just when you finish objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up.
Though Portman's casting sounds like an honest mistake, Garland and other Directors should take extra care before assuming the race of a role. Checking with the author of the book, reading its sequel (which Garland says he has no intention of adapting), or making the choice to cast a diverse actor as the lead character would have eliminated this controversy and contributed to a healthier, more diverse culture in Hollywood.
Annihilation has received otherwise good reviews and is set to premiere on February the 23rd.