Nat Wolff is taking Hollywood by storm; between his moving performance in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and the coming of age performance in PAPER TOWNS, Wolff seems to be making waves in the industry with his roles from adaptations of Johnathan Green’s YA novels. Now he’ll be taking on the role of a more sinister nature, as Variety is reporting that Wolff is in final negotiations to star as the lead in Adam Wingard’s adaptation of the hit DEATH NOTE manga series for Warner Bros. Production is set to begin in Spring of 2016.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the story revolves around Light Yagami, a brilliant Japanese high school student who comes into possession of a supernatural notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone by knowing their face and writing their name in the notebook. Light, upon learning that the notebook does in fact work, immediately gets a god-complex and decides he will use the notebook to eliminate criminals (and anyone in his way) and create a new world where he will be hailed as both god and savior. His plan goes awry when he attracts the attention of a reclusive world-renowned detective L, and a cat-and-mouse game begins between the two to uncover each other’s identity so that justice can prevail.
When we initially covered this story, I expressed both excitement for the project (There’s also a DEATH NOTE musical, guys! How do you not get hyped up for that?), but also concern regarding casting. A common occurrence with live-action adaptions of Japanese properties for American distribution is a tendency to whitewash a character or set of characters for an American audience. This happens for a number of reasons, usually with star power being sited as the main factor for changing the race of a character from nonwhite to white (as well as the go-to the excuse of “they were the best actor/actress for the role”). I’m a big fan of the DEATH NOTE series, particularly the part of the series focusing on the battle of wits between the detective and the young megalomaniac. As such, I was holding out hope that this adaptation would be different, that they could still make the story take place in America but still have a mostly Japanese cast. For instance, the character L canonically speaking is an Asian-American character, so there’s absolutely no question in my mind that they should cast an Asian-American actor to play L. Though casting for L hasn’t been announced, news that Light, the villain/protagonist of the series, is going to be played by a non-Asian actor doesn’t inspire me with much (or really any) confidence that any Asian-American actors will be cast for the film (which, quite honestly, feels a lot like this). I have no doubt that Wolff could play the role and genuinely give a great performance, but the fact of the matter is that I feel the same way I feel about this casting news as I did about casting Justin Chatwin to play Goku in Dragon Ball, or Tom Cruise for the lead in EDGE OF TOMORROW, the adaptation of ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. If this was an isolated incident, I could forgive and forget as long as the Wolff gave a great performance in the finished product. But the fact of the matter is that this isn’t the case, and given that it’s 2015 and we still have yet to see this trend change, I am genuinely at a loss for words. Why is this still a problem? Why, in a world where Ki Hong Lee and Maggie Q can play prominent roles in THE MAZE RUNNER and DIVERGENT respectively, where Lucy Liu can play Watson, and where FRESH OFF THE BOAT can be a big success are we still seeing people like Emma Stone cast as a character named Allison Ng?
Some may dismiss this assertion as an over-reaction, or claim that it’s an unreasonable request for the sake of token political correctness, as there have been a number of increased roles for many ethnicities in both film and television over the last 15 years (as mentioned in some of the examples above). A recent report from Deadline also noted the positive implications of this shift, but also highlighted some startling trends that still persist within the industry:
A study from USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication, titled “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014,” examined the 100 top-grossing films each year, from plot lines to casting and directing, with an emphasis on speaking roles. What they found in film — which was pegged an ‘epidemic of invisibility’ — were 17 films with no African-American actors and more than 40 with no Asians, and none with a transgender character. (Leave it to TV: On USA’s Mr. Robot, B.D. Wong plays a transgender hacker). In addition, only 21 films featured a female lead or co-lead. When the study was released last month, Stacy Smith, author of the report, said, “When over 40 films [out of 100] have no Asian characters, we have a problem.”
Though the cinematic landscape is changing in what seems to be a positive direction, what breaks my heart about this casting choice is that, given the source material and the importance of Japanese lore within the original story, the filmmakers had a genuine opportunity to be inclusive by casting an Asian actor for the part. This choice would have had relatively little risk of affecting the film’s overall box-office performance since it already has a built in international fan base that they are no doubt banking on for the film’s success, but they chose to go another route anyway. Wolff, I’m sure you’ll give an excellent performance and make a very menacing Light, but this is bigger than you and me. This is a problem dealing with institutional racism in an industry that has a profound effect on the way we view and perceive the world, one that has been getting better in recent years, but still makes it very difficult for nonwhite actors to get a role outside of stereotypes and “token” characters. This will only change if we as an audience demand it, and if studios who shape our media choose to listen, so this is me demanding it; this is me demanding change, because in the words of Zero Gravity’s Mark Holder, “All anyone wants is a fair shot.”
What do you think of the casting news? Do you agree with my concerns or do you think this was the role Wolff was born to play? Be sure to let us know @TheMovieChickk!