Alex Garland's upcoming Annihilation, the film adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, features a core cast made up nearly entirely of women: Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson. Annihilation's cast is undeniably diverse - it includes Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Sonya Miznuo, Oscar Isaac, and Benedict Wong - but the film is still following in the unfortunate footsteps of Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, and Ghost in the Shell. But recently, some, including the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, have accused the film of whitewashing the roles played by Portman's and Leigh's characters, saying the characters on which they are based are of Asian descent and Native American descent, respectively, in the trilogy. However, the character's race is not mentioned until the second book, and Garland notes he only wrote and cast the movie based on VanderMeer's first novel.
Natalie Portman is white. Likewise, the founder of American Indians in Film and Television described the matter as disappointing, but nothing new. "I think it would be wonderful if we got to a space where people felt that they were conscious of their attempts at creating good characters, not characters specified by race", she said. He continued, "As a middle-aged white man, I can believe I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are".
In the first book, none of the characters are named but are identified by their fields of expertise (biology, linguistics, anthropology, etc.). "Obviously there should be more parts for everyone, and more diversity in all films". It isn't until VanderMeer's later books that readers learn their ethnicities.
Garland or someone on his crew could have done that but didn't. It's not until the story's sequels - which Garland said he hadn't yet learned of - that Portman's character is described as having Asian heritage. Speaking to Yahoo, Portman says: "Well, that does sound problematic, but I'm hearing it here first".
"We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, and women and particularly women of color, Native Americans - I mean, we just don't have enough representation", Portman said.
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. At the movie's premiere in Westwood, Calif., on Tuesday, Leigh said she recently heard about the whitewashing accusations.
If nothing else, this situation goes to show that fact-checking matters, just like representation. The author responded with what was basically a blank check on adapting his work. The same rules apply if you're passionate about inclusive representation.
Alex Garland's Annihilation is facing some criticism as it heads toward its February 23 release.