Movies, Pop Culture

Jurassic World? More like Jurassic Whitewash

SPOILER: By the time Jurassic World ends, you’re nearly back to an all-white cast.

Jurassic World, the direct sequel to Jurassic Park, is clearly a success, since it’s one of the highest-grossing films ever. With that kind of money on the line, you can expect for there to be tons of sequels, not to mention tons of merchandise. But let’s pause for a second and think about what Jurassic World could have been. Perhaps, it might have been an even more inclusive film than it tried to be. As it stands, Jurassic World left me in a precarious state between happiness and disappointment.

[bctt tweet=”I was part happy, part disappointed ” username=”wearethetempest”]

A few weeks ago, Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow was interviewed by ScreenCrush about the process he took when editing the film’s story. One tidbit caught the eye of several Jurassic Park fans—the original plot’s focus on main characters who were also people of color.

After Trevorrow stated that he “started from scratch” with the film’s story, utilizing ideas from Steven Spielberg and the original script from Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, he discussed how he changed some of the characters from their original intent. “The only other thing we kept from the Rick and Amanda script was that there were two boys,” he said. “In their script, they were Chinese and were the sons of a Chinese paleontologist that was going to the park because the DNA of a dinosaur she had found had been stolen.”

Cue my immediate irritation and the irritation of many others who read this story. The assumption Trevorrow seems to make is that the main characters couldn’t remain in the film as leads and still be Chinese. He doesn’t give any reasoning for changing the characters’ races, which lends more speculation about why the characters’ races were changed. Regardless of why he changed the characters’ races, however, the decision reinforces the Hollywood stigma that people of color can’t be lead characters; they can only be secondary or racialized characters, which, to an extent, does include B.D. Wong’s character Dr. Wu.

[bctt tweet=”This choice reinforced stigma against actors of color” username=”wearethetempest”]

Even though Wu is a fun role for Wong to expand on, Dr. Wu himself could be seen as a racialized character because he’s a Chinese scientist. Sure, there are Chinese scientists in the world, but in films, the “scientist” role is one of the few available to Asian actors, apart from kung-fu/karate roles or roles that either emasculate, fetishize, or are steeped in stereotypical mysticism. The “scientist” role in particular can be troubling, depending on how it’s characterized, because the role wrongly suggests there’s legitimacy in the “Model Minority” myth, perpetuating stereotypes that Asians (specifically East Asians) are the smartest and most-hardworking of the minority groups in America. This seemingly positive statement is often used as a buttress for white supremacist views and pits Asian Americans against other minority groups, usually African Americans, who are often stereotyped as being lazy and criminal-minded.

Wu also doesn’t have a ton of screentime in Jurassic Park. Wong said in a recent interview how he felt his original Jurassic Park role was reduced due to what he called “racial exclusion in Hollywood.” “When you’re an ethnic actor you always have to question why his character got scaled down so much,” he said to Business Insider. He goes on to lament how the studios behind films often feel they need to be “Caucasian-centric” in order to appeal to the masses.

Fortunately, Wong doesn’t portray Wu as a model minority; even in Jurassic Park, Wong managed to imbue some life and individuality into his role, making Wu a much rounder character. What’s even better is that Wong gets to expand Wu’s more opportunistic tendencies throughout Jurassic World. But, while Wu’s lack of screentime is something that has been rectified in Jurassic World, Wu’s limited screentime was only one of Jurassic Park’s problems with representation. Along with Wong as Wu, Jurassic Park also stars Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Arnold. However, unlike in the book, Arnold dies and Wu just disappears from the film, relegated to the Tertiary Character Prison. What’s interesting is that at the time the film was released, 1993, it was still en vogue for the black male characters to be killed off in films. In fact, Mr. Arnold is the second black man killed in Jurassic Park; the very first black male death happened in the opening scene during the classic dinosaur crate scene.

[bctt tweet=”Wong doesn’t play a model minority” username=”wearethetempest”]

Jurassic World might have fixed some of the issues Jurassic Park had, but representation was still a huge issue, and that’s not even including the removal of the Chinese kids and the paleontologist. Jurassic World does do better about introducing a more multicultural world, with Irrfan Khan playing the eccentric billionaire owner of Jurassic World and Omar Sy and Brian Tee as part of the raptor training unit and the leader of the dinosaur containment unit respectively. Sy, the film’s only black character, also doesn’t die, which is a miracle, seeing how a raptor hunts him down.

However, even though Jurassic World introduces us to a multicultural cast, it also fails when it comes to sustaining a multi-racial and multi-ethnic cast throughout the film. By the time Jurassic World ends, you’re nearly back to an all-white cast, mostly because the most important people in the film are the leads (who are, of course, cast as “default” white actors).

Unfortunately, Khan and Tee’s characters do meet horrid fates. Khan’s character, Masrani, dies in a dinosaur-facilitated helicopter explosion, and Tee’s character Hamada not only gets to say one line of dialogue, but he gets almost immediately eaten after saying it, resulting in him only having about 10 minutes on screen from the first time we see him. Tee’s character death in particular is grating, because his image was used over and over again in the trailers, giving audience members (particularly Asian American and Asian audiences overseas) the hope that there would be more than one Asian character in this film.

Tee and Khan’s character deaths reassert another Hollywood stigma that was at one point only used exclusively for African American characters; only one type of minority can exist at one time in a film. These types of storytelling decisions reveal bias as to whose lives are seen as more valuable. There is an erroneous belief that there has to be a reason for characters of color to exist in films, while white characters, generally used as the “default” setting for humans in films, don’t need reasons for their existence. It’s this particular ideology that serves as the basis for a lot of Hollywood’s biased casting practices.

Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler exposes Hollywood’s biases when discussing racial issues in comic books, particularly when discussing the casting of Jason Momoa as Aquaman. Wheeler stated that Aquaman and other comic book heroes like them were probably created to look like white Americans “because white American audiences expected their heroes to look like them.”

“Audiences were used to heroes played by Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, or Randolph Scott,” he wrote. “Diversity was not a consideration in a pre-Civil Rights America with a reportedly 90% white population (The percentage of the U.S. population reported as white stood at its all time peak in the census of 1940.)” Many years later, society has become more sensitive to civil rights issues due to increased multiculturalism, increased mixed-race marriages and transracial* adoptions. However, as Wheeler states, the comic book industry as a whole has stayed in the past, lurching forward in seemingly painful bursts.

Wheeler’s explanation of 1940s comics can be used to describe Hollywood and its own outdated systems. Just like in comics, Hollywood has recreated the images of mostly-white America during a time when America was at its most homogenous. Even though times have changed, the thought processes, such as lead characters needing to be white, haven’t. That leads to people to question when films portray characters of color in roles that don’t require a racialized bent, such as an Asian leading male who’s not a kung-fu master or an African American leading woman who isn’t “sassy.” Wheeler rightly described this questioning of the legitimacy of non-white characters as “cultural bias.” “Whiteness as default becomes logical and comfortable,” he wrote. “Only non-whiteness requires an explanation.”

Admittedly, my view of the film was colored before I got to the theater; after reading that the characters’ races had been changed, I was let down. I was further let down by Masrani’s death and how none of the main characters were characters of color. But despite the criticisms, one can’t say Jurassic World didn’t try to be inclusive. The addition of Wu as a strong secondary character (and potentially a main character in the next film) was very encouraging, and it seemed to finally signal Wong’s further ascension into Hollywood, something I, a lifelong Wong fan, have been waiting on for decades. But, Jurassic World would have been much more powerful, though, if the film had really been allowed to explore the full breadth of inclusivity the original script aspired to have.

[bctt tweet=”I felt let down before even entering the theater” username=”wearethetempest”]

Monique headshot 2014

Monique Jones is an entertainment journalist and owner of COLOR, a site focusing on race and culture in entertainment. She is also a writer for Entertainment Weekly’s Community Blog. Feel free to tweet Monique @moniqueblogne.