Annihilation Is Being Criticized for Erasing the Main Character’s Race

Director Alex Garland adapted his movie Annihilation
from a book of the same name, by Jeff VanderMeer. Some changes
have been made to the film’s protagonist in the jump from page
to screen: she’s no longer Asian.

According to
the Hollywood Reporter, this change
has not gone unremarked. Natalie Portman plays the expedition
leader who guides a group of women into a weird, haunted/alien
invaded forest to look for answers as to why her hot husband is
sick after returning from the same nightmare locale.

In the book, this character is described by VanderMeer in a
single sentence in which she has “dark, thick eyebrows, a
slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on
rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian
heritage on one side of her family.”

Leaving aside the vague weirdness of this description of race,
it does at least imply that this character is half-Asian. Where
in Asia? We don’t know. But Portman is not that. Another
character, the Psychologist, is described as being
half-Indigenous and half-white in another novel in the series,
Authority. This character is played by white actor
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation, the film.

Two organizations, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans
and American Indians in Film and Television, have come forward
to criticize Garland’s casting choices:

Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to
the characters in the book,” MANAA board member Alieesa
Badreshia said in a statement. “He exploits the story but
fails to take advantage of the true identities of each
character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian
American and American Indian characters, and those roles
could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and
Television, agreed. “We are not surprised by the Whack-a-Mole
diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish
objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up,”
he said in a statement.

Asian characters are particularly susceptible to whitewashing
in Hollywood, and you would think the recent coverage of these

and the increasingly vocal
would tip directors off that this is no longer
acceptable; yet, Garland only seemed to realize something was
up in an
with Nerdist in December, when he was asked
directly about the brewing controversy. He asked the
interviewer to explain it to him.

“I did not know that stuff,” he said before asking us to
explain the gist of the issue. “It would not be in my nature
to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read
a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was
amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt
this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that
was it.”

VanderMeer hasn’t commented publicly about the issues of race
in the adaptation of his book. The movie might be facing issues
anyway; fighting amongst producers has led Paramount to

make a deal
with Netflix, who will stream the film
internationally 17 days after its domestic release. A true vote
of confidence.

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