In Or Out: On Keanu, Akira, and expectations for multiracial actors

By Guest Contributor Monique Jones, cross-posted from moniqueblog

If you’ve been following the news surrounding Akira, you might have heard that Keanu Reeves was circling the film and probably would have been cast in the role of Kaneda. But Reeves has dropped out of the film. Also, according to CinemaBlend, a big chunk of the staff on the movie have been let go and the previsualization department has been shut down. However, WB says the movie is still in development in the following statement:

Production on Akira has not halted or been shut down, as the film has not yet been greenlit and is still very much in the development stage. The exploratory process is crucial to a project of this magnitude, and we will continue to sculpt our approach to making the best possible film.

Reeves, whose background includes Hawaiian and Chinese heritages, may have been considered by the studio execs and/or the casting agent over “Akira” to be a good pick for the film because of this. Racebending.com seems to think so. However, Racebending explains their hesitance to see Reeves cast as Kaneda:

We can sort of see why Warner Bros. would want to go with one of their previously established stars–Reeves is arguably Warner Bros. biggest actor of Asian descent (granted, only 2% of WB films from 2000 to 2009 had an Asian lead, and they were mostly Asian nationals like Jet Li and Rain.)

At the same time, it’s unsatisfactory to see Reeves (who has played white characters, multiethnic characters, and even Siddhartha) default to Hollywood’s only go-to actor when they need to find someone to portray an Asian lead character. Hollywood isn’t exactly hard at work to discover this generation’s next hot “Keanu.”

For Asian American actors who aren’t Keanu Reeves, opportunities to play lead characters continue to be few and far between. Will Warner Bros. exceed expectations and cast an Asian American actor alongside Reeves to play Tetsuo? Can a $230 million Akira project that barely resembles the source material make enough to make a profit?

Now, I understand what Racebending is saying here. They would like to see Asian/Asian-American actors who aren’t the typical Hollywood type cast in the film adaptation of one of the biggest Asian art exports ever. They are also slightly annoyed at Reeves being constantly picked for these types of roles instead of Hollywood execs trying to find someone new. To be clear, I’m not knocking what Racebending’s opinion on the matter is; they are, after all, an Asian-American group and I’m African-American, a person on the fringes. And their opinion is partly the impetus behind my epic Akira Asian shortlist posts, because it does get tiring to see the same people get cast over and over again. But something that I noticed in the comments section of various movie websites paints a different picture about Keanu-gate. Yes, the commenters are just as annoyed as Racebending, but there’s a large number of people who think Reeves is white and white only, thereby not suitable for the role.

This wave of dissention from commenters raises the issue about the murky state of biracial or multi-racial actors and actresses in Hollywood. Some are thought of as a representation of one race while others are viewed almost like an “all-purpose” type person; both ideologies have a bit of error in them. The statement also raises an even bigger question–what is Hollywood’s role in our race perceptions?

There are some actors like Reeves, who are able to play characters from many different backgrounds because of their many different ethnicities. Lou Diamond Phillips–who is Scots-Irish, 1/4 Cherokee, Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Hawaiian–is one such actor, having played Native American/Mexican outlaw “Jose” Chavez y Chavez in Young Guns and Young Guns 2, The King in the Broadway revival of The King and I, Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, and Latino student Angel Guzman in Stand and Deliver.

Johnny Depp is also a multi-ethnic actor. You might recall the recent mulling over Johnny Depp has been doing over revising the role of Tonto in the upcoming reboot of The Lone Ranger. Depp, who is part Cherokee or Creek Native-American through his great-grandmother, said to Entertainment Weekly that he is making sure Tonto is not the sidekick he was in the show; Depp’s Tonto aims to be what he felt Tonto should’ve been in the show, which is being a more proactive character instead of a slap-in-the-face to Native American viewers.  Depp’s family history also has ties to French Hugenots.

Another example is Taylor Lautner, who has been featured in Moniqueblog’s “Native American Pride” section. He is Dutch, French, German, and has distant relations on his mother’s side to the Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes. Because of this, he has been able to portray Native American Jacob Black in the Twilight series.

With all of this said, however,  it would appear Reeves’ multi-ethnicity hasn’t cut the mustard with a big number of commenters on the aforementioned movie sites; they think Reeves is only white, therefore, they are glad he’s not in the movie.

This type of assumption and backlash is some of what actors and actresses who are part African-American have to deal with. They know of their white heritage, but in quite a few circumstances, they are only accepted by the public as black. Halle Berry is half Caucasian and half black, but is only labelled by Hollywood as “African-American” . In fact, Berry has stated many times that she identifies as “African-American”. (In a similar vein, Mohawk actress Kaniehtiio Horn, who is half Caucasian, has said “I am a Mohawk, a Mohawk woman, even if I don’t look like one.”) Other thespians such as Shemar Moore, Lisa Bonet, Thandie Newton, and Karyn Parsons are biracial but are generally thought of by the public (and possibly by Hollywood) as simply “black” because they “look” black and/or because they’ve played black characters, when in fact, many biracial actors have played biracial characters; for example, Parsons played a biracial woman in Mixing Nia.

But, there are other biracial actors and actresses like Jennifer Beals and Rashida Jones who, while not shunning their African-American heritage, do have the ability to be cast as other ethnicities in film and television because of their light skin tone. However, both Beals and Jones have stated their opinions on this: Beals has a history of asking for her characters to be biracial and has played a biracial woman passing for white in the film Devil in a Blue Dress, and in an interview with Women’s Health Magazine, Jones speaks openly about being thought of as “not black enough”:

RJ: My parents were crazy cool and I was a straight up geek. I wanted to be a lawyer, a judge, president…

WH: And instead, you became…an actress!

RJ: That was never the plan! But I always wanted to pursue theater and my black cultural identity. In my second year at college, I did the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and it was so healing. It was an incredible experience.

WH: Healing because the African-American crowd shunned you for “not being black enough,” right?

RJ: Yeah. I’m lucky because I have so many clashing cultural, racial things going on: black, Jewish, Irish, Portuguese, Cherokee. I can float and be part of any community I want. The thing is, I do identify with being black, and if people don’t identify me that way that’s their issue. I’m happy to challenge people’s understanding of what it looks like to be biracial, because guess what? In the next 50 years, people will start looking more and more like me.

It would seem that a lot of people are giving Reeves the same “you’re in or you’re out” treatment a lot of biracial or multi-racial actors and actresses get; because Reeves looks white, this is causing a few problems for the commenters, and probably, a lot of Akira fans.

As to Hollywood’s role, I will say that it’s pretty much a fact that the bigwigs in Hollywood generally cast people by looks alone; they aren’t always so sensitive as to figure out what your actual ethnicity(ies) is/are (they should be, however). My dream-come-true interview with Michael BenyaerThe Real Adventures of Jonny Quest Season One voice of Hadji and voice of Reboot’s Bob, proved that fact:

“Hollywood is … Hollywood is very specific,” he [Benyaer] said. “Hollywood casts roles based on what you look like.”

Also, said Benyaer, many people in Hollywood do not differentiate between accents that originate from India and the Middle East. “To them it’s all the same,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a Pakistani accent,’ [or] ‘No, that’s an Israeli accent.’”

However, I’ve only touched on the tip of the problem when it comes to deciphering where Hollywood’s role ends and our role as everyday people begins in how we view race. I guess one step in ending the merry-go-round of confusion about ethnicity would be to realize that probably about 50%-80% of us in America have different ethnicities somewhere in our gene pool; I personally know that I make up part of that percentage. I put it to you, though–what do you think about this topic? Has Hollywood and our pop-culture failed us in some way? Or is all of the blame to be put on us “regular people”?

  • Sol Fyre

    Its been the entitlement of Hollywood and White privilege of Hollywood to take creative, cultural and intellectual licensing at their leisure and portray it as they want. With the continuing efforts of groups and individuals to bring cultural awareness to the ‘LIVING’ and thriving diversity of America, there is a call and a need for storylines that involve people of color to be AUTHENTICALLY portrayed by people of color. There is a prevailing blindness to the Hollywood machine that refuses to acknowledge there are groups of various ethnicities that exist in America who have a large enough talent pool to provide AUTHENTICITY to any non-white roll.  The White establishment likes to ignore the multi-ethnic realities that surround them. The disillusion dictates that while others may exist they do not have to acknowledge that fact because they have the power to do so. Take for example, using white actors with face makeup to portray Asians, Native Americans, Blacks and anything else they felt like.  There is just this long standing history of behavior and its called RACISM, people and this particular version of it is very, very EURO-CENTRIC. I could go on and on…but, I choose to stop here.

    As for the Keanu Reeves playing Kaneda…I am a anime buff. I even attend conventions and as a huge fan of Akira I think that Keanu shouldn’t play Kaneda because he is TOO OLD and he just doesn’t have the look–PERIOD. Any anime fan will tell you he is just not suitable for the role. I hate when the Hollywood machine sullies a great story with inappropriately cast actors, warped story lines and time lines. They are only going to take the masterpiece that is Akira and mess it up some how. It won’t be worth the wait for us anime followers.

  • http://profiles.google.com/evil.urd87 Tania Pineda

    The problem besides Reeves not being japanese is… the age. The character of Kaneda is suposed to be a juvenile delinquent and Reeves is just to old to portray that kind of character.
    Also, japanese actors and japanese american do exist in an more than enough number to start searching among them for the characters, why can’t they just do that?

  • Karak

    I feel that people want to see themselves as heroes and leading protagonists of stories. Bi or multi racial people want to see themselves, people who are more uniracial want to see themselves, and so on and so forth.

    The real solution is to start creating characters like look like real people, act like real people, so that a character can be onscreen AS someone who is of Chinese, Hawaiian, and Caucasian descent and not someone white or someone Asian.

    In the specific case of Akira, though, this is a Japanese story with Japanese characters, and the actors should be people of Japanese descent.

    Honestly, Avatar, the Last Airbender, would have been an amazing venue for people of multiracial backrounds to come to the forefront, as the characters display features not often associated with one particular race. Instead, we got racefail, but that’s another story.

  • http://theradishpress.wordpress.com/ theradishpress

     Thank you for posting this. As someone who is multi-racial and constantly mistaken for only white or other races that I am not, I get so saddened when I see white folks cast in roles of POC, or POC cast in roles of other races. And assuming that someone like Keanu Reeves can play ANY Asian is really insulting. I am half Iranian and get so annoyed when non-Iranians are cast to play us. Why was Jake Gyllenhaal cast in the Prince of Persia? Or why was Shohreh Aghdashloo (an Iranian) cast as a Turk in the show 24? It is all so fucking frustrating and angering. I think that these actors have some responsibility to speak up, however, it is easy to get mad at them when really it is the industry and society that perpetuates this bullshit.

  • Anonymous

    I think a number of biracial actors of White and Non-African decent, such as Keanu Reeves and Ben Kingsley, got their start because they could portray White characters.  It is a form of Whiteness privilege, and when those actors become the go-to people for portraying people of color it is part of why Hollywood lacks stars who are unambiguously people of color.  For stars of African decent it is less frequent that a person of color will be read as White on screen or I suspect we’d observe similar dynamics.  

  • Anonymous

    It’s about representation. It’s about visibility. If nonwhite actors are cast only so long as they can pass for white, there’s a problem.

    …seems pretty simple to me.

  • copperFox

    I’m of mixed descent myself. My feelings are if the *character* explicitly isn’t mixed or if there is absolutely no reason to assume that they could be, that a mixed-race actor/actress should not be cast.

    Casting Keanu Reeves as the actor for a character who is pretty much canonically completely ethnically Japanese is insulting. Keanu is mixed and he isn’t even Japanese.

    There’s a difference between casting an original role in development with a mixed actor and incorporating that into the character and taking a previously established character who is explicitly fully Japanese and casting them with a mixed-race actor of no Japanese descent.

    This is apples and oranges, and Racebending has every right to call foul.

  • Guest 1

    As much as familial diversity ought to be celebrated, the fact that actors like Rashida Jones, Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves, and Johnny Depp could, in certain contexts, PASS for white, and certainly LOOK very Caucaisan and are usually cast in Caucasian roles doesn’t make casting them a celebration of diversity. Even Taylor Lautner and Halle Berry are made to look in many movies like White people with tans. It’s all just whitewashing, not a celebration of diversity/multiethnic heritage. All the physical features privileged are “white” (or “exotic” which is basically White feature + different hue). Until more  actors who do have prominently black, brown, indigenous, and East Asian features are being cast  regularly in big-budget movies, I will continue to believe that Hollywood doesn’t care at all about diversity or its viewers of color.