Beyond Skrein’s quick response to the Hellboy backlash, the detail he went into in his statement was notable. “Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family,” he said (Skrein is of Austrian-Jewish and English descent). “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and give voice to inclusivity.” His acceptance of that responsibility as an artist was clear, as was the effectiveness of the pushback from fans that helped him realize it. The creator of the original comics, Mike Mignola, thanked him for his decision, tweeting, “very nicely done.” But the buck shouldn’t stop with Skrein; he shouldn’t have been in this position in the first place.
Lionsgate, the studio behind Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen (which will star Stranger Things’s David Harbour), and the film’s producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin said in a statement that the decision to quit was Skrein’s. “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision,” they said. “It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.” They haven’t, however, answered the question of why Skrein was chosen to begin with; if anything, his casting came off as a symptom of institutional lethargy in Hollywood around this issue.
There have been plenty of flashpoints over whitewashing in Hollywood’s history. Decades ago, white actors would routinely play characters of color, often sporting offensive makeup; classic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Lawrence of Arabia feature performances from Mickey Rooney and Alec Guinness that are horrifying racial stereotypes. While such blatant failures happen less often, subtler ones are commonplace today, including in movies where white actors play real-life people of color: The Social Network (Max Minghella’s character is Indian in reality), or 21 (where the Asian American card players at the center of the real story were made into white characters in the film).
And then there are obviously clunky moves, like having Emma Stone play an (entirely fictional) character named Allison Ng in Aloha who proudly describes herself as a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese. For most of Hollywood’s history, audiences might have been generally unaware of off-screen changes, especially if the real-life figures being portrayed were less well known. But modern online activism and the wave of bad publicity that comes with it (which can drive ticket sales down) have begun to spur meaningful change, with one example being Skrein’s prompt response.
The most prominent whitewashing controversy in the immediate lead-up to Skrein’s casting centered on Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action remake of the classic Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. That film tried, through complicated plot mechanics, to explain why Motoko’s brain had been put into the body (or “shell”) of a white woman, a half-hearted measure that ended up enraging fans and confuse casual viewers. (One particularly jarring scene saw Motoko mourning the death of her old body with her Japanese mother, an attempt at heartfelt drama that came too suddenly, and ended too quickly, to feel remotely earned.) The studio, Paramount, blamed the film’s financial failure on the whitewashing debate and bad reviews, which was especially ironic since the industry defense of Johansson’s casting was that she had global box-office appeal.