Alex Garland’s Explanation for the Whitewashing in Annihilation Doesn’t Add Up
The upcoming film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula-winning book, Annihilation, is dealing with multiple issues such as a lack of promotion and limited international distribution. Now, it is also coming under fire for claims of whitewashing.
In the first book Annihilation, the main characters are given no names and are instead called by their job position, such as “The Biologist,” played by Natalie Portman, and “The Psychologist,” played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the second book, it is “revealed” that “The Biologist” is of Asian descent and that “The Psychologist” the character is half-Caucasian and half-American Indian.
According to Nerdist, writer/director Alex Garland had no idea about the issue of whitewashing, because he wrote the script for the film before the manuscripts for Books 2 and 3 were available, and casting was completed in March 2016.
The problem with this timeline is that the second book in the trilogy, Authority, came out on May 6, 2014. Annihilation itself came out in February 2014, and the final book, Acceptance, came out on September 2, 2014. So all of the books in the series came out the same year, two years before they started casting this film.
As a filmmaker, I can understand not wanting to read every book in a series. (The reader in me cringes at that, but I digress.) There is no guarantee that an entire trilogy will be made, and sometimes it’s better to have one strong movie rather than build something to be a franchise. However, the information was available for him. He could have had a co-writer, an assistant, or anyone else come and make sure that he wasn’t missing anything, such as the race of characters.
But it’s not just Garland who should be questioned about this. What about VanderMeer? In an interview with Collider, Garland says he and Vandermeer had “two, three-hour phone conversations going through it all.” Did he not have anything to say about these changes to the characters? Or was he, like many others, happy that the cast was really diverse and therefore saw it as an overall win?
This is a conversation that is going to continue in Hollywood—most likely with the Alita: Battle Angel movie, where a good chunk of the cast are brown and black, but the fact that there is whitewashing of Asian characters seems to not be as pressing an issue.
While I am glad that Garland used VanderMeer’s vague descriptions in the novel as a way to not automatically make every character white, the reality is that he also missed an opportunity to give a lead role to an Asian actress and an American Indian actress. In a climate where we’re talking about the importance of seeing yourself in roles more and more, especially with something like Black Panther coming out, it is important that we recognize that representation matters for all minorities.
We need movies with Latinx leads, we need movies with Asian leads, and we need movies with Indigenous leads. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for having diverse casts if, in the process, we are also stripping away representation. I understand that studios are afraid that they can’t cast an unknown non-white lead, but considering Paramount is afraid to even promote the movie because it is “too intellectual” and “too complicated” it seems that whatever leverage they were hoping to get with Natalie Portman won’t really work anyway.
Annihilation is a fantastic book, and it is the smart, engaging kind of science fiction that I love to watch. I am also glad that there are so many WOC and POC in this film, and I do want this film to do well. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold Garland and VanderMeer accountable for this easily fixable “mistake.”
(via Nerdist, image: Paramount Pictures)
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