Ed Skrein’s ‘Hellboy’ Departure Signals a Turning Point in Hollywood Casting

Hellboy Fsr
By  · Published on August 29th, 2017

Whether it boils down to ethics or money, Hollywood is discovering that whitewashing doesn’t pay.

I’m no fortune teller, but up until a day ago, I would’ve bet you I could’ve told Ed Skrein‘s future with absolute accuracy. Since signing on to play Japanese-American character Ben Daimio in Neill Marshall‘s remake of Hellboy, it’s been painfully obvious how things were going to shake out. First, there would be the outrage, then the talking points from producers about how they chose the right talent for the role regardless of race – hey, thanks, Christa Campbell! – and then, to top it all off, a press junket spent desperately trying to convince audiences that they should just wait to see the movie and they’ll be proven wrong about the film’s treatment of the main character (spoiler alert: no, they wouldn’t). Layer in people’s disappointment that Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman wouldn’t be re-teaming for a third movie in their original franchise, and you had all the pieces in place for a uniquely rough PR shitstorm.

Except someone decided to break the wheel. In a surprising turn of events, Skrein took to social media today to announce that he had stepped down as Ben Daimio in Hellboy to ensure that Lionsgate would recast the role. “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people,” the actor wrote, “and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts.” Here’s the actor’s full statement:

Even without knowing the full details of Skein’s departure – Variety notes that the actor had the full support of Lionsgate on his decision, though there’s no telling what financial considerations or contracts were made – it’s hard not to acknowledge the importance of what Skrein this week. It’s one thing to be a fierce advocate for diversity in superhero movies when you’re not making $100 million dollar tentpole productions, quite another when you’re an aspiring action star who might’ve been one Hellboy away from Jai Courtney’s career. Skrein has literally left money on the table to ensure that audiences don’t feel put off by Hellboy from Day One, and no amount of qualifications should take away from this moment. Whether Skrein did it because he’s pure of heart or did it because his agent recognized that the tide had turned on whitewashing issues, the outcome remains the same: Hollywood has now admitted that the negative press that surrounds whitewashing is not worth the costs associated with recasting a role. It might be via the stick instead of the carrot, but still: Hollywood is learning.

Of course, not everyone was pleased. If you disable your Twitter filters and let the internet wash over you like the Arc of the Covenant, you can also see plenty of people who are upset that Skrein has fallen victim to this ‘new’ wave of ‘liberal censorship.’ The underlying assertion here is that representation politics in film is some hot-button political issue and not, in fact, a criticism that has been woven into academia and film criticism for decades. Hell, you don’t need access to fancy literary journals or college textbooks to point this out: all you need to do is futz with the date ranges on a Google search and you’ll see plenty of examples pop up just in the last two decades. There’s the 2008 letter-writing campaign by the website racebending that protested the all-white cast of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. There’s the 2006 controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center when that film cast a real-life black soldier with a white actor. And there’s the backlash 2002’s A Beautiful Mind received for having Jennifer Connelly play the Salvadoran American wife of Russell Crowe’s John Forbes Nash, Jr.

The fact that none of these films were critically wounded by their casting decisions isn’t proof that these are new issues; it’s proof that audiences have gotten better about holding Hollywood accountable for its casting decisions. Critics highlight missed opportunities (or a blatant disregard) for minority performers; audiences choose to spend their hard-earned dollars on diverse films; organizations like the MPAA make a pronounced effort to include more POC in their membership. Driven by either morality or marketing, studios were destined to phase out productions like Ghost in the Shell eventually, but Skrein’s decision may have just put the industry into overdrive. Skrein and Hellboy have effectively put the industry on notice: if you don’t get it right the first time, you can change direction without upending your entire production. In fact, I feel pretty confident saying that, if Hellboy recasts Ben Daimio with an Asian-American actor, then Skein just added at least his projected salary to the film’s bottom line, and probably a whole bunch more. That’s a win-win for everyone involved.

All of this makes me especially pleased, because – and here’s the most controversial thing I’m going to write in this entire article – I can finally get back to actually being excited about another Hellboy movie. You may claim that del Toro’s original films are shining examples of the superhero genre done right, and that’s fine for you, but I’m having a really hard time coming up with a movie more my jam than a Neill Marshall blockbuster starring Milla Jovovich and Ian McShane. That’s all any of us actually want, really: if Hollywood is going to insist upon these multi-year hype cycles for upcoming releases, then I’d like them to stop ruining movies before they’ve even had a chance to start shooting. Good or bad, now Hellboy can be free to succeed on its own merits like any other movie. If you don’t screw the pooch right out of the gate, critics and audiences might actually be able to take that wait-and-see approach so many producers ask for when things go wrong.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)