Hellboy, and the difficulty of giving up white privilege

Dear Rebecca:

Are you a Hellboy fan? No? Well, let me bring you some news from the world of entertainment:

After Ed Skrein was cast in the forthcoming reboot of Hellboy, frustration quickly surfaced over the white actor being slated to play Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character from the comic books. It was the latest installment in the Are We Seriously Still Talking About This? chronicles of studios racially miscasting roles in film and television. But, in a big twist, Skrein announced Monday that he will depart Hellboy to make way for a more appropriate actor, explaining his “moral” decision on Twitter.

In a response to both whitewashing complaints and Skrein’s decision to exit the film, Lionsgate has released a statement of their own today saying they are now committed to casting the role of Daimio correctly: “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”

28-ed-skrein.w190.h190So. We can argue whether the ethnicity of a fictional character is set in stone, but I’d like to leave that aside for now and say that what Skrein did was very, very laudable. He got a job based on a number of factors – he’s a talented prettyboy, after all – but also, probably, because Hollywood still finds it easier to cast white people in Asian roles than the other way around.

To his credit, Skrein didn’t try to rationalize this. He gave up his privilege.

Here’s the tough part: Giving up that privilege was probably, for Skrein, relatively easy. He’s been in movies before; he’s got several more in the process. He wasn’t giving up work, exactly — he was giving up this work. When you’re rich and (somewhat) famous, that’s a gamble worth taking, especially if you calculate that keeping the role might make you look like an insentive racist to part of the viewing audience.

Down the socioeconomic ladder, it’s a little harder.

I understand why a lot of folks don’t want to hear about white privilege. Maybe it means they get harassed by the cops less, or maybe they find it a little easier to get a job, and getting a job is goddamned difficult enough that it doesn’t always feel like much of a privilege. And hey, I’ve got kids to feed, too, so why should I give up my $40,000-a-year job to somebody else who deserves a shot?

The other thing: The situation isn’t usually so clear-cut as Skrein’s. He took a job that had long been envisioned for an Asian face. When I take an editing job,it’s rarely a “black” job, I take.

This is why folks like Trump win elections. Losing privilege is a loss, especially when it gets down to zero-sum questions of who gets this job.

So what Skrein did was admirable. It’s also not really an example to solving the problem.

Sincerely, Joel

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