Annihilation accused of whitewashing the book's characters

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Feb 15, 2018

Perhaps no movie is without controversy these days. Just yesterday, Sony publicly apologized for making light of food allergies in its live-action adaptation of Peter Rabbit. Then there are the polarized reactions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Facebook plot to tank Black Panther with negative audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. You can't please everyone. 

The latest film that finds itself under fire is Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. While the movie has been getting a deluge of positive early buzz, it is being derided by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which has accused Garland of whitewashing the characters from Jeff VanderMeer's original novel. The news was first broken by The Hollywood Reporter.

“Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book,” MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia said in a press release provided to SYFY WIRE. “He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters, and those roles could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those communities.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, echoed Badreshia's sentiments, describing whitewashing in Hollywood as a game of "Whack-A-Mole." When you smash one, another pops up to take its place.

In the first book, none of the characters are named but are identified by their fields of expertise (biology, linguistics, anthropology, etc.). However, in the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority, the main protagonist of Annihilation, the Biologist, is described as being of Asian descent while her superior, the Psychologist, is described as being half-American Indian/half-Caucasian. These roles are played respectively by Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Portman herself acknowledged the accusation while speaking to Yahoo, saying that she was previously unaware of the concern, but wholeheartedly supports diverse casting in Hollywood. 

“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,” she said. “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.”

Leigh added her thoughts to the dialogue as well, saying

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean the whole cast is composed of white actors. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, and Benedict Wong all have major roles in Annihilation. The accusations appear to be mainly focused on the Biologist and Psychologist characters. 

“This is an awkward problem for me, because I think whitewashing is a serious and real issue, and I fully support the groups drawing attention to it," Garland told Deadline. "But 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. 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.”

This is not the first time the director has addressed the issue. Back in December, he said it's not his "nature to whitewash anything." 

"That just wouldn’t be like me," the Ex Machina writer-director said in an interview with Nerdist. "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 added that he got the book "early" (meaning before Annihilation and its two sequels were published) and sent VanderMeer some of what he'd written, along with reservations on being able to faithfully adapt the novel. The author responded with what was basically a blank check on adapting his work. "Jeff said, ‘Look, that style works, you’ve got your approach. My book is my book. You guys work on the film.’ He couldn’t have been more generous, really," said Garland.

This did not seem to satisfy MANAA President Guy Aoki who said: 

”I find it hard to believe that Garland didn’t ask the author about the direction the next two books in the trilogy were heading. After all, Paramount--hoping to turn it into a movie franchise--bought the rights to the trilogy in 2013, all three books were released within seven months in 2014, and Garland signed on to shoot the film in October of that year after all of the novels had come out.  In any case, as both director and author had stayed in touch during production, we wish VanderMeer had told Garland about the ethnicities of the Biologist and Psychologist.”

Annihilation opens on Feb. 23 theatrically in North America and China. It will debut 17 days later on Netflix overseas

This story was originally published on February 13 and was updated on February 15.