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There is clear gender disparity in the film industry, but there is an even greater disparity in race. A 2014 Hollywood Diversity report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found 10.5% of lead roles went to minorities in the 172 films from 2011 examined. For casts in general, half of films had 10% or fewer minorities on board. Is it any surprise that when a film with a female hero is a financial success, the actress is white?
The film industry has a long history of denying ethnic minorities acting roles. White actors have used blackface and yellowface to take lead roles in minorities' stories. If a white actor didn't look like a character, they could use makeup, often in incredibly offensive manners that stressed ethnic stereotypes, while actors of ethnic minorities struggled to find work at all. While the practice of blackface is shunned to a much greater extent today, plenty of casting directors look for white actors to play non-white characters. Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender (titled The Last Airbender for the live-action adaptation) is played by a white woman in the adaptation, Moses and Ramses in the recently released Exodus: Gods and Kings are played by white men, and nearly all of Dragonball Z's characters in the live-action adaptation are white. Those movies were also horrible.
Ethnic minorities are prevented from playing white characters, yet white characters are given free reign to play minorities. Too often the excuse is that the most qualified actors just so happen to be white. We know the real reason is that Hollywood believes white actors who are already well-established can pull people in to see movies.
That is exactly why Scarlett Johansson is a likely choice for Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The film isn't off the ground yet, and it needs star power to get anywhere. Johansson, who played the titular role in Lucy (a film in which a white woman kills many Asian people) and Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Avengers, has shown both that she has immense talent and that she can handle action-heavy roles. I am definitely going to, at the very least, look into a film if she's cast as a major character. And if Johansson's character in the Avengers can't make it on the front cover of the Blu-ray, what chance does an Asian woman have at getting major roles?
I understand why DreamWorks would cast a white woman, but I can't wait to live in a world where that reasoning is no longer acceptable. Unless we start giving lead roles to minorities, we are going to remain in a vicious cycle of giving lead roles to white actors because minorities have less of a drawing power because they're denied opportunities because we keep giving them to white actors.