Why Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa in 'Power Rangers' Isn't White-Washing
The outcry is understandable, but it also forgets crucial facts about the classic '90s series.
After wearing ridiculous outfits and providing comic relief in The Hunger Games, Elizabeth Banks is taking it up a notch in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Saban’s Power Rangers. The actress and director plays the villainous Rita Repulsa, sworn enemy of Zordon of Eltar and the Power Rangers in the Dean Israelite-directed film, which is slated for a March 23, 2017 release.
Today, People Magazine unveiled the space witch’s rebooted look, which has been met with mixed reactions. Some like it. Some hate it. I think it’s neat, and I think the new green color is meant to foreshadow her eventual creation of her evil Green Ranger. But following the recent controversy over big studio films white-washing historically Asian characters — including Tilda Swinton in Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell — there’s an outcry against Power Rangers for doing the same to Rita Repulsa, a character who was portrayed by a Japanese actress in the original ‘90s TV series.
As a person of color who regularly lashes out against white-washing, I feel qualified to say that this isn’t a case of white-washing.
First of all, Rita Repulsa was not that Saturday morning version you thought she was. “Rita Repulsa” was actually Bandora, played excellently by Machiko Soga, in the Japanese kids show Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger from the long-running Super Sentai superhero franchise from Toei.
If that sounds confusing, you might not be aware that Haim Saban, now one of the richest media billionaires on Earth, produced Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and he did it on the cheap, reusing footage from Zyuranger and editing in new scenes with English-speaking, American actors. Most of the action, fighting, and monster scenes, including “Rita,” were lifted directly from the Super Sentai series.
It’s semantics, but technically speaking, the actress who gave life to Rita in Power Rangers wasn’t Soga. It was Brooklyn-born voice actress Barbara Goodson, and later Susan Brady (for one episode when Rita became the Mystic Mother in 2006’s Power Rangers Mystic Force). Both actresses just dubbed over Machiko Soga original scenes and were re-used (cheaply) for Power Rangers.
But Rita was played by Filipina actress Carla Pérez in live-action, from Season 2 until Season 6’s Power Rangers In Space, when new footage was necessary. But even then, she was still being dubbed over by Barbara Goodson, who modeled her Rita Repulsa voice after the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
If you’re curious about Pérez’s real voice, here she is at a panel at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention from this year:
Unlike the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, or the specifically-designed cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost, or even actual humans in the movie 21, Rita Repulsa is an alien mystic with no roots on Earth. She’s not an Asian alien witch, she’s just alien. Of course, that immediately brings up other movies like the horrifically white Dragonball: Evolution, based on Akira Toriyama’s influential kung-fu anime with aliens played by white actors. That movie was maddening, because the source material was filled with characters who were clearly meant to be Asian. It’s not so clear-cut with Power Rangers, which has always been a messy union of Japanese and American talent, with the financial bottom line always serving as the bottom line.