Natalie Portman Didn’t Know Her ‘Annihilation’ Character Was Whitewashed Until Now
In Alex Garland’s upcoming sci-fi mind-bender Annihilation, Natalie Portman plays a biologist who ventures into a mysterious territory with four other women. That plot and the movie sound incredible, but there’s a problem: Portman and her costar Jennifer Jason Leigh play two characters who were originally women of color in the source material that inspired the film. Garland’s movie has been under fire for whitewashing by two advocacy groups, and now both actresses have reacted to the controversy, claiming they didn’t know of their characters’ origins until now.
The situation is a little more complicated than the similar backlash against Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange. White both characters are women of color in Jeff VanderMeer’s South Reach book trilogy, Garland wrote his screenplay based only on the first book, and in that book the characters’ descriptions don’t include any reference to their ethnicities. It wasn’t until the second book, Authority, that VanderMeer described the Biologist (Portman’s role) as having “strong Asian heritage on one side of her family,” and the Psychologist (Leigh) as half-white and half-Native American. Garland claims he hadn’t read the second and third books when writing his film.
Since the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television called out Garland for whitewashing, Portman and Leigh have been asked to chime in during the film’s press tour. After Yahoo Entertainment described the controversy to Portman she said, “Well, that does sound problematic,” adding that she hadn’t been aware of the character’s Asian heritage until the interview. Portman added that she believes the industry still has a long way to go with racial diversity and representation:
We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women and particularly women of color, Native Americans — I mean, we just don’t have enough representation. And also these categories like ‘white’ and ‘nonwhite’ — they’re imagined classifications but have real-life consequences. … And I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.
When Yahoo asked Leigh about the backlash, she called it a “valid criticism” and added that she wasn’t aware of her character’s Native American background either. At Tuesday night’s premiere of the film, Leigh told Variety of Garland, “I think had he known about those things, it might be a different cast. But we’re lucky to have a movie with all women.” That last bit is true, and Garland’s film features two women of color in supporting roles, including Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez. Still though, representation for one minority shouldn’t excuse the omission of another.
Garland told Yahoo that he deliberately didn’t read Authority and Acceptance, the two sequel novels, in order to keep his version of the material his own – he describes his adaptation as “a dream of the [first] book.” That’s understandable, but it begs the question of what responsibilities come with adapting material, and whether claiming ignorance, even if that ignorance is purposefully done for creative reasons, is acceptable in a climate of such limited racial diversity in Hollywood.
Should Garland have done further research to ensure his film properly represented the original characters, or should that not matter if his version was its own thing? It also brings up another matter: to what extent, if any, should actors to be aware of the roles they’re playing? Ed Skrein willingly dropped out of Hellboy after learning his character was written as half-Japanese; should we expect performers like Portman and Leigh to have done research on their own? I don’t know the answers, but more than anything, having these conversations openly, with both critics and creators, is essential to making change happen. Hopefully we can reach a place where characters of color are being written in more leading roles, by people of color and cast with non-white actors. Until then, proactive awareness and a commitment to doing better from white creatives is key.
Annihilation hits theaters February 23, followed by a release on Netflix 17 days later.
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