It's time to ask that age-old question once again: what's in a name?
This morning, the Media Action Network For Asian-Americans released a statement criticizing director Ridley Scott and claiming he'd whitewashed "The Martian" by casting non-Asian actors in roles for Asian characters.
Namely, he singled out Mindy Park (played by Mackenzie Davis) and Vincent Kapoor (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), saying they both should have been played by actors of Asian descent.
“Was Ridley Scott not comfortable having two sets of Asian Americans talking to each other?” the group's president, Guy Aoki said. “So few projects are written specifically with Asian American characters in them and he’s now changed them to a white woman and black man. This was a great opportunity to give meaty roles to talented Asian American actors — and boost their careers — which would’ve enabled our community to become a greater part of the rescue team.”
But here's the thing: neither Park nor Kapoor (whose first name in Andy Weir's novel is Venkat) were ever physically described in the novel, and they were not assigned ethnicities. In a conversation with MTV News at Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie debuted, Weir said he avoids describing characters on purpose. (This interview took place before the MANAA statement.)
"It’s weird, when I write, I just see a sort of blob of protagonist," he said. "At the end of the book, when I finish[ed] the book, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you [main character] Mark’s hair color. I also I know a lot of people, including myself sometimes, when reading a book you get a mental image for yourself of what you think the character looks like and it’s like, OK, this is how I envision the character.
"Then if the book tries to physically describe a character, your brain rebels. It’s like, 'no, no, he doesn’t have black hair, he has brown hair. And no he’s not really tall, he’s kind of short' and all of that stuff. So unless a physical description is somehow relevant to the plot, OK, you know he’s missing a leg -- something like that, but unless it’s like really important to the plot then I don’t physically describe my characters at all."
"You can imagine them however you like. Like, for instance, the ethnicity of Mark, I never told you."
So can you really whitewash a character whose ethnicity is never stated? There's one line in both the book and the movie, in which Kapoor (Vincent or Venkat, take your pick) is asked about his religious background. He states that his father is Hindu, and his mother is Baptist.
He is an American man, and so what if the name "Kapoor" and the religion "Baptist" seem to clash to you? One does not cancel out the other.
Weir agreed, laughing off criticisms of Ejiorfor's casting as Kapoor.
"He’s an American. Americans come from lots of different sources!" Weir said. "You can be Venkat Kapoor and black."
He did admit that he'd always pictured Mindy Park as of Korean lineage, but emphasized again that he had never actually explicitly written her as Korean.
"Whatever ethnicity she has, she’s an American and her family has been in America forever, which is why her first name is just Mindy, but her last name is Park. But Park is also a British surname so the casting people [could have] thought Mackenzie Davis looks like someone descended from Brits," Weir said, laughing. "And she did a great job! I’m certainly not complaining about anything related to casting."
It's also worth noting that there is an instance in which Weir assigned an ethnicity to a group of characters vital to the rescue of Mark Watney: the Chinese astronauts who provided a necessary part of the supply launch in the rescue effort were, in fact, playing by Asian actors.
By no means is the film's cast all white, and it's hard to wrap your head around criticism of the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as "whitewashing." It's certainly easy to see the logic of the complaint, but if you take a step back, what's in a name? Much more than just a character's race.
"The Martian" is in theaters now.