MMXLII Viewpoint: Third World Tragedy, First World Victims

If you’re old enough to be reading this, a meditation on race and casting in Lionsgate Film’s new movie, The Impossible, then you may very well be old enough to remember the event that the film is based on, the December 26th, 2004 tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in South Asia and Africa. Maybe you remember horrifying headlines, accompanying photo spreads documenting shocking devastation, and even more shocking footage of the wave itself- villages and resorts erased like sand castles, cars and boats thrown about like children’s toys. Maybe you remember looking forward to the day when those scenes of destruction and tragedy would be incorporated into the plot of a major motion picture. Maybe the thought never crossed your mind. Either way, that day has come. The Impossible, based on the true story of a Spanish family caught in the wake of the 2004 disaster while vacationing in Thailand, follows a husband, wife, and three sons through the wave and its aftermath.

 

To its credit, critical conventional wisdom seems to hold that the film has done an adequate, even excellent job relating the scope and tragedy of the event (now would be a good time, in the interest of full disclosure, to acknowledge that I have not seen The Impossible.) Reviewers have commended the special effects, the directing, and the acting- especially that of the three leads, Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and relative newcomer Tom Holland.

 

However talented these three may be, and I’ve no doubt their performances are excellent, the casting of these particular actors in this particular film raises interesting, and perhaps troubling questions. The true story The Impossible is based is the story of a Spanish family, but McGregor, Watts, and Holland are all from the United Kingdom. And despite the fact that most, perhaps nearly all of those affected by the disaster were South Asian or African, all three actors are Caucasian.

Maria Belon, Watts’s real-life counterpart, has answered questions about the decision to cast English actors to play her Spanish family, saying, “This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It’s about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don’t care if they would be black, brown or green skin.” In the end, of course, the filmmakers decided that unlike the vast majority of the victims of the tsunami, their characters would not be black or brown, but white. To be fair, this is factually accurate- the movie is based on the story of a Caucasian family, although it should also be noted that the filmmakers chose to make an English language film, despite the fact that that family was Spanish-speaking.

Which brings us to a question perhaps more important than “Why these actors?” Why this story? Of the 230,000 dead, roughly 9,000 were foreign tourists, mostly, like the Belons, from Europe. Which means of course that the vast majority of the tsunami’s victims were natives of the South Asian and African countries that were hit hardest by the disaster- brown and black people, who spoke neither Spanish nor English as a native language.

I quote these statistics not to try to discount or downplay the tragedy of the 9,000 Westerners killed in the tsunami, or the thousands more who, like the Belons, were affected by it. I don’t want to suggest that their tragedy was any less significant than anyone else’s. But I do want to suggest that this film’s emphasis on those particular victims may take something away from the hundreds of thousands of victims who weren’t white, weren’t Western, and weren’t caught in the path of the wave because they happened to be on the wrong vacation on the wrong day.

The filmmakers have chosen to tell the story of a disaster that affected primarily people of color living in third-world and developing nations through a very Westernized lens- the tale of a European family, on vacation from their first-world home, unexpectedly caught in the path of a third-world tragedy. Does doing so take something away from other, less-privileged victims? Does reducing other victims of the tsunami, those with black or brown skin, who spoke Hindi, or Thai, or any number of other languages, to the status of extras and supporting characters also, in some way, diminish the significance of actual lives and actual deaths? Does it suggest, in some subtle and ugly way, that the lives of wealthy Europeans matter more than those of impoverished people of color?

It’s possible and even likely that the motives behind the casting of Watts, McGregor, and Holland were far less ugly than the implications of those choices. But it ought to be noted that this isn’t the first time Hollywood has decided to tell a story about people of color through the eyes of white protagonists. Who thought to make a movie more sympathetic to Indians than cowboys before Kevin Costner started dancing with them? Why was Tom Cruise the last samurai, when every samurai before him happened to be Japanese? Even Glory, the story of an all-black regiment, found Matthew Broderick’s white officer a more convenient focal point than Denzel Washington’s black enlisted man.

Maybe filmmakers and studio heads fear that white audiences, who make up a fast-shrinking majority of moviegoers, won’t turn out to see movies about people who don’t look like them. If so, they might consider giving the general population a little more credit. In fact, the recent success of Life of Pi, a film which starred a South Asian actor as a South Asian character in a largely South Asian setting, surrounded chiefly by other South Asians and a South Asian tiger might suggest that filmgoers are ready for movies that are cast the way they’re filmed- in full color. At the time of this writing, The Impossible has made about $4.3 million in the United States, though it’s done better abroad, especially in Spain. Life of Pi has made $92.8 million in the United States. America’s demographics are changing, which means the demographics of its theaters are as well. Which means that in the future a more diverse demographic on the screens of those theaters might not only be accurate, and not only be right, but be smart business as well.

By Joel Wacks

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