Reel Representation: ‘Annihilation’ features actresses of color, but struggles with whitewashing
My heart dropped when I saw the words “whitewashing” and “controversy” appear in a headline about the upcoming film “Annihilation.”
I’ve been excited for the film ever since its trailer dropped in December. The movie features an all-female scientific team exploring a mysterious environmental disaster zone, with two of the main characters played by Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson – two incredibly talented actresses of color. Hollywood doesn’t make a movie like this every day.
Then, I read an article detailing the accusations the film faced for its casting choices, and I felt a mixture of emotions – disappointment, surprise and oddly, hope. Although “Annihilation” is a perpetrator of whitewashing, the director and cast responded to the allegations with grace, tact and an understanding that makes me optimistic. Hollywood may continue to cast roles unmindfully, but this instance proves some professionals in the industry are capable of acknowledging and learning from their mistakes.
“Annihilation” is adapted from a book of the same name, the first installment of the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” and is minimal when it comes to description of the characters – it doesn’t specify characters’ names, much less their physical appearances or race.
However, in the series’ later books, the protagonist, played by Natalie Portman in the movie, is revealed to be an Asian woman, while the character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh is revealed to be Native American. Although the cast was finalized in 2016, the controversial nature of the decisions only recently came to light with the approach of the film’s release.
As an Asian woman, I’m all too familiar with how rare it is to see an Asian woman, on screen, front and center. I can’t think of the last major film to feature a female Asian lead, especially a science-fiction horror movie. Typically when Asian women are cast, we’re relegated to the roles of the quiet nerdy kid in high school or the manic best friend in a rom-com.
“Annihilation” would have been a major opportunity for Asian-American representation, but unfortunately, when a character’s race isn’t specified, white is usually presumed as the default. In reading the article, I felt an acute sense of loss for an Asian character that would never make it to the screen.
However, as I continued reading the article, waiting for the inevitable Band-Aid “I’m not racist” statement from those involved in the film, I found the exact opposite.