Wednesday, April 19, 2017

89.7 KMSU FM Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or simply believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

This pledge drive has a fundraising goal of $30,000 this spring. The money primarily goes to maintaining KMSU equipment so that we can keep the station and its diverse slate of programs on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact KMSU's programs have on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, April 23rd, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Whitewashing the Shell

Having reviewed the live action version of Ghost in the Shell on its cinematic merits (find the review here), I want to move on to the controversy around the film. Ghost in the Shell is based on a Japanese comic book and when it was announced that white Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson would be cast in the lead role, social media, cultural commentators, and activist groups expressed disappointment and outrage. The moviemakers were accused of whitewashing, which is the casting of white actors as characters of color, either by changing the race of the character or by using makeup effects to transform a Caucasian actor to appear non-white.

Whitewashing is not a new phenomenon nor is it unusual. Early movies commonly featured white actors in black face. During the studio era, many great movies featured white actors in nonwhite roles such as Alec Guinness as an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and Mickey Rooney as an Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The practice continued well after that with 1983’s Scarface starring Al Pacino as a Cuban American and 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings featuring an all-white cast playing Middle Eastern characters. For many years, this practice was simply taken for granted and even rewarded with actress Linda Hunt receiving an Academy Award for her performance as a Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously.

Ghost in the Shell was released in the midst of a broader debate about representation and identity politics. Today’s viewers have greater awareness and sensitivity about racial representation and activists who have campaigned on this issue for many years have suddenly found themselves making inroads into the mainstream. Newspapers and websites have run article after article about the absence of people of color in movies and television while hashtags like #oscarssowhite trend on social media. What was taken for granted is now falling out of favor and controversies have erupted around movies such as 2015’s Aloha, 2016’s Doctor Strange, and 2017’s The Great Wall.

It’s worth understanding why studios do this. In response to the furor surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood filmmaker Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and directed American Ultra, took to his Youtube account to give an inside perspective. In short, whitewashing has to be understood as a business decision rather than an artistic choice. Here is what Landis had to say:

Max Landis experienced some blowback from his online statement but understanding why something happens is different from excusing it. However, blaming the lack of representation of people of color on “the culture”—whatever that might mean—or on the Hollywood “system” obfuscates the responsibility studio executives, casting directors, filmmakers, and movie stars have in perpetuating the whitewashing phenomenon. And the box office failure of Ghost in the Shell pokes a multi-million dollar hole in the institutional reasoning that Landis points to, in which bankable actors are supposed to ensure box office success.

But not all whitewashing is necessarily equal and that’s where it’s worth connecting the issue to Ghost in the Shell. Although it’s based on a Japanese comic book, the character played by Scarlett Johansson was not specifically designated as Asian in the source material. This is a peculiar feature of manga. As Emily Yoshida explains in an article on Verge, Japanese comics and animation have historically created characters that were of an ambiguous ethnicity. However, Yoshida also points out that the source material of Ghost in the Shell was a product of a particular time and place and its story reflects Japan’s economic and cultural zeitgeist in the late 1980s and early 90s.

The whitewashing claims against Ghost in the Shell are further complicated by the nature of the story. Johansson’s character is a cyborg, a living brain inside of a mechanical body (the “ghost” inside of the “shell,” per the title) and it’s debatable as to whether our notions of race even apply in this instance. In that respect, the filmmakers of Ghost in the Shell squandered a prime opportunity. At one point, the film reveals that the brain of Johansson’s character was originally in an Asian woman. Had the filmmakers handled this right, they could have adapted Ghost in the Shell in a way that would have added a fascinating layer to the story’s exploration of identity and flipped the controversy on its head while updating the story for a twenty-first century audience whose economies and cultures are intertwined. But it’s clear that director Rupert Sanders didn’t see Ghost in the Shell as anything more than another sci-fi shoot-’em-up property and he treated it as such.

The variables around Ghost in the Shell don’t make it a very good example of Hollywood whitewashing although there are plenty of more egregious examples. Ultimately, this isn’t really about one film or another. The underlying problem is the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood films. According to 2010 census data, Asians make up 4.8 percent of the United States’ population but, according to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asian actors are only one percent of leading roles in Hollywood films. Were Asians and other ethnic minorities adequately represented in Hollywood, it probably wouldn’t matter who was cast in Ghost in the Shell.

It’s unclear how much the whitewashing controversy may have hurt Ghost in the Shell at the box office. As Deadline pointed out, the film’s distributors made a series of mistakes in marketing Ghost in the Shell, some of which had nothing to do with race at all and others that played right into the hands of the film’s detractors. The controversy certainly didn’t help but Ghost in the Shell was also a mediocre movie that few people will remember in a year’s time.

But it is clear that a threshold has been crossed. The audience is getting more diverse, as are its tastes, and if the American film industry wants to survive in the global marketplace it must keep up with the rest of the culture. Hollywood studios are slow to evolve but they do follow the bottom line. The box office failure of whitewashed movies and the success of features with diverse casts are priming Hollywood for a paradigm shift. What that new order will look like and how ethnic minorities might fare under it is uncertain. But the current model is unsustainable and in the not too distant future we’ll look back on Hollywood whitewashing with the same mix of embarrassment and confusion that today’s viewers look at a minstrel show.