Does 'Annihilation' Whitewash Its Lead Characters?

The sci-fi flick starring Natalie Portman has received some backlash, with critics accusing the movie of casting white actors in nonwhite lead roles.

Does 'Annihilation' Whitewash Its Lead Characters?
Peter Mountain - © 2018 Paramount Pictures

Some critics have accused the new sci-fi film "Annihilation," starring Natalie Portman, of whitewashing by casting white actors in nonwhite lead roles. The movie, based on Jeff VanderMeer's book, is about a team of four women in a top-secret mission to explore the strange phenomena in an area known as "Area X," or "the Shimmer." In the book's sequel, VanderMeer describes Portman's ex-military, biologist character as having "Asian heritage" and Jennifer Jason Leigh's psychologist character as half-Native American. 

A Yahoo reporter asked Portman if she felt the whitewashing criticism was valid. Portman said, "Well, that does sound problematic, but I'm hearing it here first." The question also surprised Leigh, who said: "It's probably a valid criticism. I didn't know that." Leigh and Portman both deny knowing about the characters' ethnicities before the film was released. Director Alex Garland also points out he wrote the script for "Annihilation" before the characters' racial backgrounds were revealed on the sequel. According to Deadline, Garland said: "I think whitewashing is a serious and real issue, and I fully support the groups drawing attention to it. But the characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities." All three books from the trilogy: "Annihilation," "Authority" and "Acceptance" were published in succession in 2014. 

Wakanda's General Okoye stands among her all female special forces. Florence Kasumba and Danai Gurira in Black Panther (2018)

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But Media Action Network for Asian Americans blasted Garland in a statement, saying: "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."

Hollywood diversity expert Darnell Hunt says it makes sense for production companies to diversify its casting and production because in many cases it means a bigger bottom line: "Our argument has been if you really focus on catering to America's diversity, you're going to do well in the global market. And again a film like 'Black Panther' shows that ... series like 'Fast and Furious' show that which are radically diverse and have made billions of dollars." 

Scarlett Johansson in

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It's a consistent critique of Hollywood: Studios place white actors in roles when the source material is based on characters of color.


Although the film features Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson as supporting actors, Hollywood still lacks women of color as leads. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, but just a little more than a tenth play lead actors in film. Hunt says now is the time for inclusion. He said: "It's a winning combination because people want to see themselves on the screen. And when you have films that are diverse, there is something for everybody, which leads to a larger audience and more revenue." 

As for the author, he hasn't commented directly on the whitewashing allegations but did say in a tweet, "I never expected a faithful adaptation, just a good one."