Over the last week, I have seen a great deal of back and forth with regard to this whitewashing thing and in this fifth entry of my on-going series on the issue, I wanna talk about the discourse at large. A lot of the disagreement occurs because of poor communication and forethought by one or more parties, repetition, and so on. Much of this, others have already discussed elsewhere, but here it is again, as a single post, as best I understand it.
If there’s any significant issue missing, I recommend that someone append this post with it in a reblog. I will also accept asks on this issue, but understand that I will not repeat myself on anything that I have already covered here or elsewhere, I will not respond to overly passionate or irrational people, and most importantly, I will not insult you. If I choose to answer your question, it will be in a polite and courteous manner, regardless of what I think of the question itself.
Why is whitewashing this character a problem?
Let me answer this question with one of my own. How many of your heroes (fictional, whether in books, movies, etc.) have brown skin? How many black? How many Asian? Not one? Truly? This is not a question I reserve to the white audience; in fact, it becomes even more important among POCs. As a POC myself, I can say with great shame, that the number of non-white fictional characters that I admire I can count on the fingers of a single hand. Among my favourites, I name Picard, Spock, Data, Dr. McCoy, Stannis Baratheon, Tyrion Lannister, Doran Martell, Peter Parker, Mitchell Hundred, Howard Roark, and so on and so forth. Learned men; smart, maybe a little nerdy - more statesman than warrior, and imbued with a deep, enduring sense of honour. I don’t know that that’s too much to ask from a brown or a black character, but certainly, Hollywood would have me believe that these traits are alien to my people.
To some extent, this is understandable. These things are made by the British and the Americans primarily and, of course, historically, that was what their characters were going to look like. The idea of having a Hispanic Spider-Man surely never occurred to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; nor to Bob Kane and Bill Finger in Batman’s inception. And that’s fine. But it isn’t the 1940’s anymore. The world has changed. The consumer has changed. The white man is no longer the sole concern of the British or American writer. These books, comics, TV shows, and so on, mustn’t simply be relevant to the African American, Asian American, Indian American, and other such populations either, but to the young boys and girls in India and Dubai and Mexico, where book stores, TVs, and cinemas will be dominated by all-white casts.
Then comes Roddenberry, then comes Star Trek. 1966 and we put the first non-maid black woman on TV, we put a non-villainous Asian at the helm of a starship, and rounding out this multi-coloured cast was a Russian navigator. It can look silly now that we have the technology and the sophistication to make movies like The Avengers and Avatar, but if you have the patience to look past all that, you’ll find something of near immeasurable value in each and every episode. Today they’ll tackle with the dilemma of whether a god can still be worshipped, tomorrow you get to watch Kirk bluff for an entire episode, the day after that you get to see the effect that the desensitization of war can have on a civilization. Star Trek has always been about more than just space, phaser fights, weird aliens, or even science. Star Trek has been about hope, the best of mankind, and as is the case with many of the classic science fiction novels that were its predecessors, complex moral and political issues.
Khan Noonien Singh was a product of this enterprise - a superior human being among superior human beings; a villain, true, but a good one. Strong, smart, and complex, he was a man that went on to earn the respect of his adversary, Captain Kirk, and the viewer both. But that’s not all. In some 15 years’ time, he returned to menace the crew once of the Enterprise once more, this time contributing to what many consider the most successful of the Star Trek movies. Hard as I try, I can’t seem to find another character with a South Asian ancestry that has achieved such a position in pop culture. I mean, sure you’ve got Kumar of Harold and Kumar, maybe Pi from Life of Pi, or even Slumdog Millionaire… but that’s not really the same as Peter Parker or Stannis Baratheon, is it?
But rest assured, there are many such enlightened men in the world that understand the great opportunity in appealing to minorities, if only for profitability. One of the most successful such outings has been Nick Fury. When the Marvel universe was rebooted in the parallel ‘Ultimate’ comics line, which were initiated with the intention of modernising the stories, the once-white Nick Fury was redesigned to look like Samuel L. Jackson. Given his background and characterisation, the writers felt it was a good fit and they took a chance. Since this redesign tested well and since it was 2008 then, this is the Fury that made it to big screen, played of course by the man after which he was modelled. Perhaps even more impressively, the mainstream 616 universe has now essentially removed the original Nick Fury to make room for Nick Fury Jr., his black son (the Jr. is usually dropped). And rest assured, this guy is identical Sam Jackson, too. The Ultimate Spider-Man is now a half-black, half-Hispanic kid. Batman has multiracial allies the world over (some even serving as their nation’s Batmen), and so on and so forth. It’s a new world and for once, it seems like there’s room for everyone.
So one can appreciate what we, the fans, expected from a series like Star Trek in 2013. Something that has inspired real scientists, astronauts, writers, actors, and so on the world over; something that has for years, and continues to change the world.
Let me begin by saying that Star Trek Into Darkness was a good movie. Abrams knows how to make it and he knows how to sell it. But it wasn’t Star Trek in anything but the most superficial of ways. The characters have been reduced to caricatures of the men and women they once were to appeal to a mass audience. All attempts at showing real science have long since been abandoned (cold fusion? really? REALLY?), as has anything remotely similar to a complex moral dilemma. Sure, we’ve got tribbles and we’ve got Carol Marcus, we’ve even got a highly offensive mention of Christine Chapel… but that’s about it.
This is a good action movie, maybe even a good science fiction movie, but it is not a Star Trek movie. I consider even Final Frontier, even Nemesis, to be more legitimate than this ridiculous affair. Darkness arbitrarily takes some of the most superficial aspects of Star Trek, sticks ‘em together in a patchwork of poorly considered setpieces, and calls it a movie. See, here is the problem with the new Khan: it’s not just that he’s whitewashed, it’s that he’s an empty husk carrying the name of a legend. Worse yet, it’s that this description could easily double for the rest of the movie. But most importantly, it’s that we expect more from Star Trek than we do from other revived franchises like Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and rightly so.
It doesn’t have to be the best movie ever made, but it does have to be something that doesn’t embarrass the long-time fans of the franchise. It does have to have something that takes the nearly half-century long legacy of the original series and at least ventures a single step forward, as opposed to taking ten backwards. Put simply, it is a bad Star Trek movie, and none of us want it. It is insensitive, unoriginal, and superficial. And just to add a little perspective to this thing, here is a thread from 2009 that discusses this issue better than any of us ever could today.
Why is no one talking about this?
I was initially very troubled about this. There are blogs and there are articles on websites and even a Trek alumni (Garret Wang of Voyager) who have spoken up about this whitewashing issue… but that’s about it. I see now that there are two main reasons for this. The first, of lesser importance, is likely that folks aren’t familiar enough with Trek for the most part to question this thing. And the second, which is rather of an insidious nature, is that interviewers and reviewers and other folks who may consider this issue noteworthy have been asked not to say the word Khan, not to bring it up, and not to contest it… because it’s a spoiler.
But Khan was originally played by Hispanic/white actor?
Aye, but in 1967, a Hispanic actor playing an Indian character was a big victory for everyone. As I have discussed in the past, this was Abrams’ chance to right that wrong and contribute to Star Trek’s legacy in a positive way by casting a person of appropriate race. But alas, this was not the path taken. In fact, one of the arguments that I have seen in defence of this whitewashing thing is Benicio del Toro, Abrams’ original choice, dropped out and they were forced to take Cumberbatch on in his stead. I think it’s possible that this is true, but exactly what happened here is not easy for us to discern with the information that we have. But here is one thing that we do know: del Toro is not South Asian.
But Khan is; the original Hispanic casting was the result of a compromise. I don’t know whether this is a case of laziness or complete ignorance on the part of the writers, but this is ridiculous. Your best case scenario for racial sensitivity was to repeat the mistakes of the 1960’s? Really? And as I understand it, not a single opportunity was afforded to a South Asian actor to try for the part. Really, Abrams? Really? Hell, as far as we know, del Toro dropped out after hearing this proposal because he understood that this was racially incorrect. Of course, I have no source to back that up, so that’s really just conjecture on my part, unless someone else wants to chime in.
As to whether Montalbán was white or not… that is a more complicated issue. Certainly, he didn’t look white, and he didn’t sound white. He was persecuted against as an actor of colour, worked to improve conditions for Hispanic actors for much of his life, and most importantly, considered himself a man of colour. I think that’s enough.
The terrorism angle
Another issue in this debate, something that has even been suggested by one of the writers as being responsible for the casting choice is whether it would’ve been more racist to cast a brown guy to play this Harrison/Khan character. As many have pointed out, this may have resulted in some problematic connotations.
I mean, you have a brown guy fighting to protect his people (72 of ‘em, a number taken from ‘Space Seed,’ but to the casual viewer it may well seem relevant for another reason) by stealing, killing, and causing a great deal of damage to property - I mean at one point the guy even crashes a starship into a bunch of buildings. So clearly, this is not the solution. But then, whitewashing alone doesn’t fully remove these connotations either. The guy’s name is still Khan. Khan Noonien Singh. Unless the writers think the audience is braindead, they’ll know what this means.
So what is the solution? Why, simply that we stop calling this guy, who clearly isn’t Khan, Khan. Make him Harrison, make him Joachim, or Malik, or whatever the hell else you like. But remove that name. It has nothing to do with the character, nothing to do with the movie, and it spits on the face of the original, as well as the great, diverse vision of Gene Roddenberry.
Khan was originally white
I’ve seen people mentioning that Khan was originally intended to be a white Nordic man. And to those of you that managed to gleam that information from the Wikipedia article, I say bravo. Unfortunately you stopped reading before the article went on to say that the Nordic man, John Ericcsen, differed from Khan in that he was not gracious, smiling, fearless, or generous; he was also quite a bit more brutal. Hm… now doesn’t that sound like somebody we know… But this character, this smart, complex villain, this Khan, was a person of colour. You cannot take the good out of Khan and hand it to Ericcsen, just as you cannot take the pop culture accomplishment that is Wrath and give it to Cumberbatch.
Is Cumberbatch innocent in all this?
One of the biggest issues when it comes to tolerance is the ability to ‘other’ the minority. Surely these Native Americans can’t be the same as me, since they look and talk and dress nothing like me. In much the same way, too much familiarity with a person or a brand can blind one to their faults. This is especially true for actors, who are by definition a combination of both person and brand. Given the particular state of our entertainment culture, it is too easy to fetishise an actor or an actress. It is not at all uncommon for young men and women to see someone like Robert Pattinson or Emma Stone and to romanticize them beyond all proportion until these people become perfect, beautiful gods; free of flaws and incapable of error.
Unfortunately, stick anyone at all on a pedestal that high and they will disappoint you. And what do we do in the face of such a disappointment? We become angry and irrational. I have heard such defences as Cumberbatch having been tricked, legally bound, and coerced into doing this role. Indeed. The blame falls almost entirely on Abrams and co. because it is easy to ‘other’ them. And trust me, I am not at all saying that he is the only one at fault, but until I see an actual, relevant, reputable source say something to the effect of: “yes, Cumberbatch was shafted pretty badly on this one, he did not sign up for this role and was forced to do it,” I’m gonna say the blame falls pretty squarely on everyone involved.
I have heard people say that regardless of personal integrity, no one else would have left a movie role in his position. After all, a man’s gotta make a living - which would be fine, for almost any other movie. But not this one, especially not when we know that Simon Pegg and John Cho nearly refused to participate in this guaranteed blockbuster, multi-movie deal because they felt that they weren’t racially appropriate for the parts. And these guys, the issues they had were miniscule in comparison to the hornet’s nest that Cumberbatch has knowingly stirred. Sure, the original Khan is dead, as is Roddenberry, so maybe it isn’t as easy for Cumberbatch to have his role validated… then again, so is Doohan, and that hardly stopped Pegg.
But then, one might say, those are the MAIN characters; it would a bigger deal if they changed the race of one of those. Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. Remember that this is the character whose popularity Abrams has mooched off of for one and a half of his so-called new movies. Remember that this is the man that made the best Star Trek movie. And, as one of the Darkness writers himself has said, remember that Khan is to the Enterprise as the Joker is to Batman.
Star Trek is a thing that most actors end up doing for life. Kirk, among others, lost his marriage to that show; lost (which is a poor choice of words on my part) many, many career opportunities in the future as well. These people use their fame and their money to help inspire young scientists and inventors, educate, narrate documentaries, and contribute to all number of worthwhile causes; that is to say, they use their power responsibly. I don’t have the time or the energy to go into further detail here, to showcase the specific instances in which Trek actors have shown themselves to be men and women of integrity, but it’s all over tumblr and if this post becomes popular enough, someone will stick it in a reblog. Star Trek Into Darkness is not just a movie, it’s a damn minefield of expectations, and again, rightly so. And for not doing his due diligence, for being an accessory to this bastardization of what I consider to be TV’s greatest achievement, for not having half the wits the gods gave a turnip, Benedict Cumberbatch is a tool.
But isn’t he talented enough to make the colour of his skin a non-issue?
Some have cited Cumberbatch’s acting ability as the thing that ought to be considered above all else. They picked the best man for the job, they say, they picked him on merit and merit alone. Well, there are three issues with that. First of all, let us consider the job. Exactly what did he have to do? Talk in a monotonously dull, drone-like voice? Do action scenes? Shed a single tear (that whether genuine or otherwise, could have been faked as easily)? None of this sounds like a challenge. Hell, give me a couple months to bulk up and I can do all this. This is not to say that Cumberbatch is without talent; the man may well be the best performer on Earth (I will admit, I am not familiar with his work and after all this, have no great desire to change that), but this role begs for neither a McKellan, nor a DiCaprio. Harrison is hardly a step up from Nero. Anyone can do this.
Secondly, by making this a question of meritocracy, the implication is that no South Asian actor can be compared to this man’s great acting ability. By the law of averages and that alone, I think it safe to call bullshit on that one, but better folks than I have discussed specific South Asian actors in specific roles outdoing this person, so I’ll leave it at that. And again, this is not a tough job. You don’t need a genius to do it. Hell, I’d say Quinto’s role was at least three or four times more demanding. Pegg’s, too. These people actually had to do things. These people actually had to showcase a range of emotions, show some growth and conflict; some complex development over the course of the movie. Surely, there must be one South Asian actor out there who can do all this, but I guess we’ll never know, since no such audition ever took place for the movie.
Thirdly, to fully eliminate this delusion of a casting meritocracy: Cumberbatch for all his Sherlock fame, and I assume other things that he has done, is a rising star, and one that will likely continue to do so for the next few years. Adding his name to the roster is a quick and easy way to bring in new viewers. In other words, he’s the new Orlando Bloom; the flavor of the week. That’s all it is and all he is. Not some unique ultra-talented snowflake, not some testament to the superiority of white actors - simply a parrot churning out an assembly-line performance; simply a parrot that happens to have a big name.
It’s too late now. The movie’s out and your complaining accomplishes nothing. It’s over.
I beg to differ. No, it most certainly is not over, and a lot can still be done to resolve this issue, which is something that I intend to discuss in the sixth and final forthcoming essay in this Khan series.