‘Iron Fist’ Actor, at Center of Whitewashing Debate, Asks Fans to Wait and See
A white man learns martial arts in Asia, turns out to be quite gifted at them, then returns home to New York to fight crime and avenge his father’s death.
As the setup of “Iron Fist,” the superhero series from the Marvel universe that will be released on Netflix next week, critics who call the show a missed opportunity say it aligns closely with old Asian tropes.
Though the main character of Danny Rand was white in the comic books on which the series is based, some fans saw the Netflix adaptation as a chance to cast an Asian-American lead. That, they said, would help smooth out some of the thorny racial issues, while giving an Asian-American actor the kind of leading part that has been hard to come by.
But the filmmakers stuck with the source material by choosing Finn Jones, who is white, for the role. Now with the series’ release approaching, Mr. Jones has found himself trying to balance his defense of the series while simultaneously promoting minority representation in Hollywood.
“I am very proud of the work everyone has done on this series, and I’m excited for people to see how we’ve adapted the story,” he told Deadline in a statement on Monday. “We have gone to great lengths to represent a diverse cast with an intelligent, socially progressive story line. I hope people can watch the show before making judgments.”
Changing the race of a main character, as the fans had hoped, wouldn’t be that unusual.
As it stands, though, the change usually comes at the expense of Asian roles.
Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone are among the white actresses to recently be cast in Asian roles. Tilda Swinton played a role in “Doctor Strange” that was written as a Tibetan character in the comic book, leading to a widely shared email exchange with Margaret Cho.
And the practice of white actors playing Asian characters goes back decades: Mickey Rooney, Marlon Brando and John Wayne all took their turns. At the same time, Asian-American actors are not often featured in leading roles.
Keith Chow, the editor in chief of The Nerds of Color, argued that an Asian-American Danny Rand would have made sense for “Iron Fist,” both from a casting and story standpoint.
The main character is the scion of a rich businessman, but his parents are killed and he is left abandoned during an expedition in the Himalayas. He’s taken in by monks who raise him and train him in martial arts.
Some have argued that Danny Rand must be white to convey that he’s an outsider in Asia and again when he returns to the United States. But, Mr. Chow countered, if you’re looking for a character who doesn’t feel at home in either place, who better than an Asian-American?
The idea of a white man being taken in by foreigners, learning their ways and emerging as their champion “seemed new in 1973, but in 2017 it’s a storytelling trope that needs updating,” he said.
“If you’re going to have all these trappings of Orientalism on top of a white savior trope, why not upend both of those things by casting an Asian-American to play the role?”
Mr. Jones, best known for his role as Loras Tyrell in “Game of Thrones,” has appeared sympathetic to the plight of minority actors. He started a discussion on Twitter of minority representation in Hollywood with a tweet on Sunday:
The tweet linked to a speech by Riz Ahmed, an actor, at the House of Commons. But some fans found Mr. Jones to be an unwelcome commentator of representation issues, and the ensuing backlash led him to temporarily delete his Twitter account.
“The characterization of Danny Rand may have remained true to its source material but our show incorporates and celebrates actors from all different backgrounds,” he responded to one fan on Twitter.
“I will go as far to say that it may be one of the most diverse shows” out of Netflix’s Marvel adaptations, he said, referring to Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. “There are a lot of characteristics in Danny which are problematic, that’s the point, rather than shy away from them we inspect them. It makes for a rich, intelligent, thought-provoking show.”
In February, he told BuzzFeed News that “there needs to be more diversity in television and film, especially for Asian actors.” But he denied that Danny Rand is a “white savior,” and said the series will reveal itself to aptly handle many of critics’ concerns.
“With this instance in particular, what I struggle with and what frustrates me is that people are commenting on the headline without understanding the full picture, without understanding the full story,” he said. “What you’ll find with the way that we’re telling this story is we’re addressing the issues that people are very concerned about in a very intelligent and modern way.