Earlier this week, Alex Garland’s new sci-fi feature film Annihilation came under controversy for whitewashed casting.
The movie, which opens next week, stars Natalie Portman as a biologist who leads a team into an unknown area called the shimmer, where the laws of physics don’t apply. While Portman is white, of Israeli descent, in the books, the character she portrays is described as having “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.”
Similarly, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the books is described as half American Indian, half Caucasian. The two casting choices led to criticism and boycotts from action groups including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television.
Back in December, director Alex Garland opened up about the accusation, saying “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”
He also noted that the descriptions of the characters only come in the second book of the trilogy, while his movie is just an adaptation of the first book.
Portman responded to the claims, calling them problematic.
“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. And also these categories like ‘white’ and ‘nonwhite’ — they’re imagined classifications but have real-life consequences… And I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.”
Even though the film does feature a diverse cast, with Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong all included in the film, Portman’s comments do highlight an important issue in Hollywood. There are not enough roles for women of color. And studios should look for more opportunities for some amazing actors and actresses who also identify as non-white.
Portman doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. In January, she called out the all-male nominees up for Best Director at the Golden Globes while presenting the award.
Annihilation comes out in theaters on February 23.