Is Alex Garland Guilty of Whitewashing ‘Annihilation’? Not Quite
The latest film from Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland hasn’t had the smoothest road to release; a battle between producers resulted in a deal with Netflix, which will release Annihilation internationally 17 days after it hits theaters. And although early reactions to Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed sci-fi novel have been overwhelmingly positive, Annihilation has another potential problem on its hands.
Per THR, two advocacy groups — Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television — are criticizing Garland for “white-washed casting,” referring to two key roles in Annihilation: Natalie Portman’s Biologist and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Psychologist. Like VanderMeer’s book, the characters are referred to only by the title of their respective professions.
Annihilation is actually the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, followed by Authority and Acceptance. It’s only in the second novel that VanderMeer mentions the heritage of these two characters. Referring to the Biologist, he describes her as having “dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.” In the same book, the Psychologist is described as being half-Caucasian, half-American Indian. Portman is half-American, half-Israeli, while Jason Leigh is American.
In an official statement, MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia criticized Garland for denying opportunities to Asian American and American Indian actors:
Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book. He 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, the founder of American Indians in Film and Television, echoed Badreshia’s sentiments:
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.
While both make valid points about whitewashing in Hollywood and the need for more diversity, it’s difficult to lump Annihilation together with recent controversial movies like Ghost in the Shell and Death Note. In an interview with Nerdist last December, Garland addressed the potential whitewashing issue by explaining that his script for Annihilation is based entirely on the first book in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Garland says he hadn’t even read Authority and Acceptance when he wrote Annihilation (which diverges from the source material in several ways):
It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.
Although Portman and Leigh are playing characters later revealed to be women of color, the cast of Annihilation is fairly diverse: Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez round out the main cast, comprised of four women who enter a mysterious area to explore an environmental anomaly. These roles are actually expanded from the book, where Thompson and Rodriguez’s characters are less prominent.
Annihilation also stars Oscar Isaac as the Biologist’s husband (another role that has been somewhat expanded), and Benedict Wong as the Scientist. Then there’s the supporting cast, which includes Sonoya Mizuno, David Gyasi, Cosmo Jarvis, Hiten Patel, and Bern Collaço.
Hollywood’s ongoing diversity problem is undeniable, as is the notion that people of color should be given more opportunities across the board. But while there are plenty of films and filmmakers to criticize for denying opportunities to people of color by whitewashing their roles, Annihilation isn’t exactly part of the problem.