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A very thoughtful article about the casting choices in Star Trek Into Darkness

bunkey

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Report this May. 09 2013, 6:31 pm

I found this article very thoughtful, well written and makes very valid points.


Contains spoilers


 


http://www.racebending.com/v4/featured/star-trek-whiteness/


 


Star Trek: Into Whiteness


May 9, 2013


If there’s one thing that most fans of Star Trek will agree on, it’s the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show — and, more optimistically, for human society — was predicated on the idea that all life is valuable, and that the worth of a person should not be judged by their appearance. Much of this was done through the old sci-fi trope of using aliens to stand in for oppressed groups, but Star Trek didn’t rely on the metaphor; it had characters who were part of the ensemble, important and beloved members of the Enterprise crew, who were people of colour. It had background characters who were people of colour. And, here and there, it had anti-heroes and villains who were people of colour … one of whom, Khan Noonian Singh, became well-nigh iconic.


 


And who is now being played by white actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the new JJ Abrams reboot movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness.


 


We’re all cynical and jaded enough to know the standard dismissal when it comes to matters of media representation: Paramount Pictures and most film studios are not interested in diversity or visibility, they only care about the bottom dollar. Star Trek as a franchise is too much of a juggernaut to affect with boycotts. There are too many people who love it, who love those characters and that world, and will go to see the movie.   And for some of these people, this devotion to the idea of a future where even South and East Asian men get to pilot a starship and love swashbuckling, where Black women make Lieutenant on the Enterprise and actually get the boy, will be trivialized and eroded and whitewashed when the most formidable and complex Star Trek baddie becomes a white man named Khan.


 


It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalban was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.


 


Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.


 


So the studio has now found a way to keep it secret and underhanded.   Racebending.com was there for most of the production of The Last Airbender, and were even able to correspond with Paramount Pictures about it.  This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.


 


As I said, this racist whitewashing of the character of Khan won’t affect how much money this Trek movie makes. And I’m happy that the franchise is popular, still popular enough to warrant not only a big-budget reboot with fantastic actors but also a sequel with that cast. I’m happy that actors I enjoy like Zoe Saldana and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.


 


But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out,  rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen.  In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.


 


And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.


 


What an enormous and horribly ironic step backwards. For Star Trek, for media representation, and for the vision of a future where we have transcended systemic, racist erasure.

OtakuJo

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Report this May. 09 2013, 7:38 pm

To be fair, Benedict Cumberbatch has so far done a pretty damn good job in everything I've seen him in so far -- including Into Darkness.


Nevertheless, I was a wee bit disappointed when it was revealed that Harrison was Khan. And certainly it may have been more appropriate for him to have swapped roles with Mickey Smith from Doctor Who. (Although that said, Mickey Smith from Doctor Who might not have been a good enough actor to do justice to Khan.)


Even more appropriate would have been to have cast an ethnic-Indian actor in the role. Unfortunately, in terms of believability, acting is one of those careers in which racial identity does matter.


Have you ever danced with a Tribble in the pale moonlight?

darmokattanagra

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Report this May. 09 2013, 7:52 pm

I understand the point the author is trying to make but I think, considering the nature of the plot, the decision to "whitewash" Khan was more about not offending Muslims or Middle-Eastern people than it was about making white people connect with the character.

fireproof78

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Report this May. 09 2013, 10:11 pm

Considering the terrorist themes of the movie, I'm inclined to agree with DT and the attempt to avoid offending people.


If studios were concerned about "The Two Towers" being a too offensive after 9/11 the Khan's background might have pushed it here.


Also, Bennedict's name right now is pretty much gold, as far as Hollywood and studios go. Adding it is called star power and is not only not surprising, but not offensive either.


Let us not forget that for all the talk of Trek being progressive, it still has some negativty in it too.

bunkey

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Report this May. 10 2013, 4:50 am

Why would Khan offend Muslims? He's Indian. Sikh and Islam are very different religions.


 


If you're talking about a brown man being cast as a terrorist being too offensive to anyone because all brown men look alike to ignorant people, let's look at options:


 


A-Recast the role as white, offending some people and effectively whitewashing the role.


B-Cast an Indian man and have some people be remined of real life terrorism because they do not know the difference between  Indian Sikhs and radical Islam Jihadism.


C-Write a new movie with new, original villains


D-Cast a white actor as a white character from Star Trek (Gary Mitchell, Garth of Izar)


 


Cumberbatch isn't "gold".  He's known among fandoms but not widely known. "Gold" would have been casting Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner or some other action star that has proven bankability. He's pretty much unknown to mainstream US audiences so that isn't a valid reason.

wissa

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Report this May. 10 2013, 7:42 am

Lots if Indians are muslim. 



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bunkey

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Report this May. 10 2013, 7:45 am

Quote: wissa @ May. 10 2013, 7:42 am

>

>Lots if Indians are muslim. 

>


 


Khan was Sikh.  


Sarcasm is my native language.
JJ Abrams is not of the body.

OtakuJo

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Report this May. 10 2013, 12:51 pm

Quote: bunkey @ May. 10 2013, 4:50 am

>

>"Gold" would have been casting Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner or some other action star that has proven bankability.

>


Blech. (lol)


Personally I would have preferred if Cumberbatch (who let's face it, is a very good actor) was an original villain. Even an Augment. Even one of Khan's Augments... but not Khan himself.


It's not a dealbreaker for me as far as the movie goes - - I did really like the story (and for that matter, the "Harrison" character) notwithstanding.


Have you ever danced with a Tribble in the pale moonlight?

darmokattanagra

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Report this May. 10 2013, 1:26 pm

Personally I would have preferred if Cumberbatch (who let's face it, is a very good actor) was an original villain. Even an Augment. Even one of Khan's Augments... but not Khan himself.


Yeah, when I read the first spoilers I was hoping that Harrison/Khan would be another augment and not the actual Khan from TOS/TWOK. That they'd play off the fact that "Khan" is more of a title than a name and that Harrison was the "Khan of Western civilization" or something.

fireproof78

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Report this May. 10 2013, 8:37 pm

I don't think Muslims, specifically, would be offended by a dark skinned man being a terrorist. I think it would be insensitive to say that it wouldn't affect people and thus might detract from the movie itself.


Also, Cummberbatch is like gold, across the pond, and is becoming quite well known for his role in Sherlock, his stage acting ability and becoming the voice of Smaug in "The Hobbit" trilogy. He may not seem like gold to others, but to me, to take the time and effort to work with him and his busy schedule, speaks a lot to me about their desire to have him act as Harrison.


Haven't seen it yet but every time he speaks in the trailers-I get chills.

bunkey

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Report this May. 11 2013, 4:59 am

 A previous article I posted stated that the producers were making Trek less Trek-like to bring in global dollars. You know whay country has one of the largest movie industries in the world? India. Bollywood is a billion dollar industry.  If the almighty dollar and having a British guy take a role that should be an Indian guy (whomp whomp) was the only strategy they could come up with, then they all need to go back to school.


Imagine, just imagine how popular the new Star Trek movie may have been overseas in Asia if they had cast a well known Bollywood actor as one of the most legendary villain in cinema history


Really, I don't think that anyone thought outside the box with this.  They just saw money.

Treknoir

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Report this May. 13 2013, 12:42 pm

I agree with the sentiments about whitewashing. Back when the actor was being discussed and JJ and nem quickly launched a disinformation campaign, I said this was BS.


It was always ridiculous that a Hispanic man was hired to play a Sikh, but understandable in the 1960's and 1980's. GR was bold in his efforts to show a diverse future with capable beings of any color or sex and I applaud him for that.


But it really left a bad taste in my mouth that in 2011-2012 someone closer to the supposed ethnicity of Khan couldn't have been chosen to portray the character. It was obvious once Benicio del Toro was being considered for the part where the story was going.


I will still see the film but I'm disappointed those in charge didn't have the stones to cast an appropriate ethnic villain.


And yes, before folks get indignant (and ignorant), this isn't just about hirng the best actor for the job. The original story CLEARLY referenced Khan's background. Also this movie is being pushed globally and not just in Western markets (which have diverse populations too, but I digress).


And no, this isn't a swipe at Cumberbatch who could make a recitation of the phone book riveting.


But I tell you what, if I have to accept such disappointments then folks who loudly complain about actors like Idris Elba playing Heimdall or alternate story line comics where Spider Man is portrayed as an Afro Latino teen need a tall glass of STFU too.



It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want. - Spock

Treknoir

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Report this May. 13 2013, 1:00 pm

Quote: bunkey @ May. 11 2013, 4:59 am

>

>Imagine, just imagine how popular the new Star Trek movie may have been overseas in Asia if they had cast a well known Bollywood actor as one of the most legendary villain in cinema history

>Really, I don't think that anyone thought outside the box with this.  They just saw money.

>


I think it was more than just money. It's a mindset. As you mentioned, Bollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry with literally a billion potential consumers. I know they tried to hire at least two Latino actors, but why wasn't the goal to hire someone closer to Khan's stated ethnicity from the get go? If they tried and it didn't work out, I could see getting whoever they could. But they didn't even try. It was never in the plan.


It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want. - Spock

Utopia Planetia

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Report this May. 13 2013, 3:37 pm

Well said, Treknoir.

Treknoir

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Report this May. 14 2013, 7:15 am

Quote: Utopia Planetia @ May. 13 2013, 3:37 pm

>

>Well said, Treknoir.

>


Thanks. I think fans should continue to raise a stink about such matters. And not just for ST. I was ticked at the whitewashing for Avatar the Last Airbender too.


It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want. - Spock

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