‘Hellboy’ Reboot Is a Case Study in How to Solve Whitewashing

Getty Images / Bryan Bedder, Dark Horse Comics

Daniel Dae Kim, who recently made a high-profile exit from CBS’s Hawaii Five-O, is close to joining the cast of the Hellboy reboot to replace Ed Skrein (Deadpool) as Major Ben Daimio, a loyal Japanese-American soldier in Hellboy’s gothic universe. Although the producers didn’t initially seem to mind that they chose a white actor to play an Asian character, the internet’s negative response (as well as Skrein’s own awareness of the situation) have laid out roadmap for how a movie can “solve” its own whitewashing just by casting someone appropriate for the part.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kim is still “in talks” and has not officially signed on, but his association with the project is proof positive Hellboy is looking to the right people to flesh out its freaky characters (in the comics, Daimio can morph into a jaguar).

It all began after the announcement that Skrein would play play Ben Daimio in the new Hellboy, set to be directed by Neil Marshall. Fatigued over recent episodes of whitewashing, like Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, the internet immediately sounded off, calling for boycotts against the film. A few days later, Skrein, who claims to have been unaware of Daimio’s Asian heritage, stepped down from production in a move that was lauded by many online. Now, it seems Kim is close to succeeding him for the role.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 19: Actor/honoree Daniel Dae Kim attends 'Legacy And Homecoming' the Pan Asian Repertory's 35th Anniversary Gala at The Edison Ballroom on March 19, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Getty Images / Michael Loccisano

There’s an easy argument to make that the producers should have looked to Asian-American actors in the first place, but the systemic prejudice against actors of color, particularly Asian-Americans (an anonymous casting director recently said Asians are “not very expressive” which is why they’re never chosen for starring roles) means there is value in smaller victories.

There is also a potential concern that Kim, a Korean-American actor, is playing a character closely tied to Japanese culture — some may remember the outcry over Memoirs of a Geisha with Chinese starlet Zhang Ziyi — but again, small victories. The alternative still would have been Skrein, who may be a prolific genre actor but is easily not appropriate to play a Japanese character.

Whitewashing is more than just about encouraging diversity in front of and behind the camera. Dating back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, whitewashing — in which white actors play Asian characters — has racist connotations; whether it’s due to the perceived “unsellable” image of Asian heroes and heroines, or that the roles were often overly-stereotyped caricatures. Today’s contemporary values, in concert with the breakneck speed and volume of social media, means there’s next to no patience for the practice in the 21st century.

Hellboy doesn’t have a release date yet.