What the Unconscious Erasure in ‘Annihilation’ Really Tells Us About Diversity

The director and stars of ‘Annihilation’ chime in on the film’s whitewashing controversy, and the results are saddeningly predictable.
Annihilation Diversity
By  · Published on February 15th, 2018

The director and stars of ‘Annihilation’ chime in on the film’s whitewashing controversy, and the results are saddeningly predictable.

Most whitewashing controversies play out very obviously. It’s easy to look at films like Ghost in the Shell and Batman Begins to figure that white people shouldn’t be playing certain characters, especially if they’re named Motoko Kusanagi and Ra’s Al Ghul. Now AnnihilationAlex Garland‘s highly anticipated follow-up to his directorial debut, Ex Machina, is facing similar accusations of whitewashing, but this one appears to be a far less straightforward case.

Annihilation is based on the first part of a trilogy of books by Jeff VanderMeer. The initial novel doesn’t specify race as a marker of character description, but the second novel classifies two of the protagonists — the biologist and the psychologist — to be at least partly of Asian and Native American descent, respectively. In the film version, these characters are played by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, which has led the advocacy groups Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) and American Indians in Film and Television to call out Garland for not casting appropriately.

MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia says:

“[Garland] 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 communities.”

Sonny Skyhawk of American Indians in Film and Television states further:

“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.”

In an interview with Nerdist, Garland has responded to accusations of whitewashing by admitting a lack of awareness to how VanderMeer’s novels would continue after the first book. His stance had always been to create an unfaithful adaptation of “Annihilation,” having received VanderMeer’s blessing to do it. About the truth of the characters’ identities, Garland states, “I did not know that stuff. It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. […] I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it.”

Portman and Leigh have also chimed in with their own takes about Annihilation‘s whitewashing, and they echo similar sentiments to Garland’s — they just weren’t aware it was happening. Speaking to Yahoo, Portman says: “Well, that does sound problematic, but I’m hearing it here first.” She adds:

“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.”

It’s worth noting that both actresses were also put on the spot for this and maybe something is lost in translation; I’m not sure what Portman means by “imagined classifications,” for example, but she sounds like she’s generally coming from a good-natured place. Similarly, Leigh does opine that “It’s probably a valid criticism,” to call the film out, which is actually a very helpful reaction in a situation like this. It at least feels like less of a deflection of responsibility. That said, Leigh does follow up by guessing that Garland chose actors who were “right” for the role, which opens up a bunch of questions as to what that entails in Hollywood.

There is no ill will among any of the people involved in Annihilation — that much is clear. The movie is still diverse, even if it isn’t perfect (as no movie can be). But a deeply rooted issue with whitewashing is how easy it is to cast white actors in mostly lead parts without necessarily considering how people of color could also be right for these roles, regardless of whether a source material states it or not. There still seems to be a “default mode” in casting that prioritizes white people over literally anyone else when movies involve “universality” in any capacity.

Of course, to overwrite actual roles written for minorities is far more offensive, and I agree with the statements from MANAA and American Indians in Film and Television. Intent does not equal impact, after all.

Perhaps the idea that Garland, Portman, and Leigh didn’t know about the characters’ heritage at all could read as an “acceptable” clarification in some way. Without the intent to spoil himself by delving into the two sequels to “Annihilation,” Garland allows his perspective of the book to be more flexible. He only wished to adapt a single novel and do it “like a dream of the book.”

But Garland also admits to what is essentially willful ignorance, which makes his explanation frustrating and unsatisfying: “I didn’t read books two and three because I was worried about them, but other people filled me in on the elements.” Well, then why wasn’t he informed of the aspect of race? In this regard, what can be said about the persistent culture of erasure within Hollywood filmmaking that immediately disregards inclusion when a role doesn’t “demand” it?

It’s easy to condemn or defend Annihilation when it comes to whitewashing depending on “which side” you take, but the situation runs deeper than surface-level diversity. To me, Garland is still wrong for not casting according to the books. It makes no difference to the series of events in the narrative that a character is Asian or Native American, but the representation would mean so much to people from these demographics. The value of inclusion is always immeasurable, but it is especially so because the story of Annihilation normalizes perspectives that don’t involve white men. To still be left out of this equation does feel like a slap in the face.

This leads to another cultural conversation bubbling beneath whitewashing in general: the discussion of why there needs to be a “reason” to cast most roles for people of color. We can’t deny that white actors will be right for certain roles, but they also get so many roles regardless. In addition to crafting stories that specifically relate to different demographics, there needs to be more due diligence on the part of creatives in the film industry to consider how their internalized biases inform practices of casting more generally in order to really be inclusive.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)