Whitewashing The Impossible
The Impossible - Trailer
An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.
These are just a few of the criticisms that have greeted The Impossible since its recent worldwide release. An English-language Spanish film about the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the disaster epic unfolds through the eyes of a British family.
Wealthy married couple Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor get separated from each other and their three children when the first wave hits. The rest of the film details their search for each other amid the chaos and destruction on a tourist resort in Thailand.
First, let’s remember the scale of that destruction. The Boxing Day Tsunami killed 227, 000 people. Less than four percent (9,000) of these were foreign tourists.
In the absence of films that relay the horrors of this catastrophic event from the point of view of the people most affected, what do we make of The Impossible, a story that focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of privileged white Europeans?
Technically and artistically speaking, the film is terrific. The acting, particularly that of the children, is top notch. The director, Juan Antonio Bayona, expertly uses CGI to enhance but never overshadow the story.
What I am trying to say is, yes, I got caught up in the emotion. I felt for the characters. I winced, I cried, I marvelled at the resilience of the ‘human spirit.’ The Impossible is a masterful feat of filmmaking and for this the creators deserve credit.
However, as a non-white person, it is impossible for me not to feel personally slighted by the blatant whitewashing of this specifically non-white event. The first I heard of the film was when I came across the trailer last month, just two days before I was to shoot my own short film. When I immediately turned to my friend to complain about its overwhelming whiteness, she reminded me that my own film features only Arab-Australian actors. Isn’t my decision to make a film exclusively about Arab characters the same as The Impossible telling a story about white European characters?
No, it isn’t. And here’s why.
Films such as mine, which although featuring non-white characters, are nonetheless aimed at a western audience. They compete for space in an environment that has historically marginalised the experiences of non-whites. Often, filmmakers such as myself make films about non-white characters specifically to counteract stereotypes and address the lack of diversity in our film and television industry.
From the days of Al Jolson wearing blackface as The Jazz Singer, films have either ignored the existence of non-whites or simply cast white actors in their roles. Who can forget Mickey Rooney’s extraordinarily racist turn as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
Closer to home, Australian director, Geoff Davis, was roundly criticised a few years ago when he cast his son Josh in a mini-series based on the life of Billy Sing, a legendary WW1 sniper. The real Billy Sing was Chinese-Australian and the actor who played him is white. By whitewashing this character, who sadly died in poverty and obscurity, Davis simultaneously denies the contribution that the Chinese made to our history and feeds the mythical stereotype of the heroic white male.
This scenario also plays out in another otherwise excellent film, director Ben Affleck’s Argo, in which Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, one of the CIA’s most decorated agents. Mendez, who devised and executed an audacious plan to rescue six diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, is of Italian and Mexican ancestry. Affleck, of course, is white.
It is a minor tragedy that in an environment that grows more hostile to immigrants - particularly Hispanic ones- every day, Affleck chose to whitewash the patriotic efforts of someone from this community. It is unlikely Affleck did this deliberately. the role of Tony Mendez was probably just too great for him to pass up. In doing so, however, he deprived a Hispanic actor the opportunity to play an all too rare leading role.
What makes the whitewashing in The Impossible arguably worse than Argo is the obvious cynicism of the filmmakers. Based on the true story of a dark haired and darkish-skinned Spanish family, the filmmakers admitted to changing their nationality and casting lily-white actors in order to make the story ‘universal’.
In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole.
For this reason, Thailand and its people are mere backdrops for the story of a Caucasian family who learn the hard way that even western privilege is no match for the brute force of mother nature.
Early scenes depict the tourists, blissfully ignorant of the calamity about to befall them, raising lanterns over the calm evening water, playing cricket on the beach and getting sunburned by the pool. After the wave, we see them stumbling aimlessly by the roadside, searching for each other in a fog of fear and confusion. While some cry over the death of a loved one(s), others are lucky enough to be reunited.
And through it all the Thais are practically irrelevant. Nameless resort workers before tragedy strikes, they later serve either as dead, bloated bodies or as ‘Magical Minorities’ who exist merely to help the white folk survive their unfathomable tragedy. And so the lives of millions of non-Caucasians, to whom this story actually belongs, are relegated to the sidelines yet again. Is the west so accustomed to the idea of third world suffering that we no longer even see trauma unless it is experienced by white people?
This is not to say that tourists weren’t impacted by the Tsunami. Of course they were, and their experiences cannot be denied. But neither can we deny the historical context in which this film exists. It is the latest in a long line of western films that erases the experiences of non-whites and renders their suffering somehow less important, less capable of eliciting empathy.
In doubling up on its whitewashing, The Impossible plays into a classic catch-22. The more non-white characters are overlooked the more audiences will expect to see white actors in leading roles. And the more that audiences want to see white characters, the more marginalised non-white actors -and the real people they play- become.