After the furor over the recent “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation, moviegoers should be familiar with the concept of “whitewashing,” the insidious Hollywood practice of casting Caucasian actors in roles that originated as non-white characters. But when Lakeith Stanfield, who is African-American, was picked to play a beloved character in the U.S. screen adaptation of manga series “Death Note,” he came up against a new term.
“I’m glad that I could be the one to usher in this new ‘blackwashing’ conversation,” he says with a smirk. “I’m not quite sure what it is.”
“Death Note” follows the exploits of a gifted high school student, Light Yagami, who comes into possession of a book that allows him to kill anyone by writing their name within its pages. Fueled by an adolescent sense of justice that quickly tips over into full-blown sociopathy, he sets out to purge the world of criminals — goaded on by a tittering, Grim Reaper-esque demon named Ryuk.
The only thing standing between Light and world domination is a candy-munching genius known only as L. (One of the limitations of the Death Note, you see, is that you can’t kill someone with it unless you know their real name.)
The 12-volume manga series, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, has already spawned four live-action films, a TV drama, video games and an anime series in Japan. Warner Bros. acquired the rights for a Hollywood remake in 2009, but the film struggled to get off the ground and was eventually put into turnaround — industry parlance for when a studio sells off a project it has been developing to recoup costs.
That’s when streaming service Netflix, an increasingly assertive player in the movie industry, scooped it up.
“Death Note” is directed by Adam Wingard, hitherto best known for horror flicks including “You’re Next” and last year’s “Blair Witch” reboot. The film transports the action from Tokyo to Seattle, with Nat Wolff (“The Fault in Our Stars”) as Light (rechristened as Light Turner), Stanfield as L, and Margaret Qualley as Light’s vengeful girlfriend, Mia.
Despite the change in location, the movie has been criticized for failing to cast Asian actors in any of the key roles.
Stanfield admits that he still finds it perplexing: “If Japan had a take on ‘Friends’ or something, obviously they wouldn’t redo it with the same cast as the American (version). They would obviously do it with all Asian characters.”
“In America, everyone’s just looking for controversy within anything,” says Wingard. “Twitter and social media in general has just become this kind of echo chamber. It’s almost like people don’t even realize how influenced they are by other people’s opinions that they’re seeing on there, and those things just kind of snowball at a certain point, until that becomes the narrative of it. Whenever you read articles that cite ‘controversial film “Death Note,”‘ it’s like, ‘Well, what controversy are you really talking about? Whose perspective is that?'”
The criticisms must have been particularly painful for Masi Oka, one of the film’s producers. The Tokyo-born actor, best known for portraying Hiro Nakamura in the TV series “Heroes,” knows better than most about the hurdles Asian-American performers face in Hollywood.
However, when he told “Entertainment Weekly” earlier this year that the production had attempted to cast an Asian actor as L but struggled to find someone who spoke “perfect” English, Oka became a target for online invective himself. Did that sting?
“If I said it didn’t, I’d be lying, but it’s also misinterpreted,” he says. (As he later clarified, he was talking about Asian, rather than Asian-American, actors.) “A lot of people haven’t seen anything, and they’re quick to judge. That’s my concern. If you understand the context of everything and look at it then speak, then I think that’s great, and then that’s a fair assessment.”
Casting choices aside, the film takes numerous liberties with its source material. Perhaps the most notable change is Qualley’s character. In the manga, Light inadvertently wins the affections of a cute, dim-witted pop idol named Misa Amane, who comes into possession of her own Death Note. Her near-namesake in Wingard’s film, Mia, is a very different creature: She quickly becomes Light’s confidante and lover, and assumes a Lady Macbeth role in the proceedings, urging him to pursue his ambitions further.
“They kind of get off on the Death Note, in a sense,” Qualley says. “I think what’s so cool about Mia is how strong she is. She’s really ambitious and she doesn’t let anything deter her from doing what she thinks is right — even if it’s a guy who she falls in love with.”
Wingard clarifies that the character is really a bit of a psycho.
“I actually saw that character as being more like the other side of the original Light as he is in the manga,” he says. “I don’t think that Light, in this version, would go off and do the things that that character’s required to do, like kill police officers who are coming after him.”
The production maintained a constant dialogue with the manga’s creators, with Oka acting as go-between. Ohba and Obata were apparently keen to ensure that certain character traits were preserved — making sure that Ryuk was tall enough, for instance, and that L was sufficiently eccentric — but were otherwise happy to give the filmmakers free rein. Oka describes the process as “very collaborative.”
“They understand that it’s a different medium, they’ve already done (film versions) in Japan,” he says, “so they actually said, ‘Hey, the Hollywood one? Just go knock it out of the park — do what you want.'”
Wherever you stand on the “whitewashing” debate, though, one charge is harder to ignore. In comparison to the dueling super-geniuses of the Japanese original, the characters in the American “Death Note” don’t seem quite so bright. Is it another case of Hollywood dumbing things down?
“I tried to look at them — especially Light and Mia — as a bit more like average kids,” Wingard says. “It was more kind of playing with the idea of ‘What does a normal kid do with the Death Note?'”
Stanfield, when I put the question to him, isn’t quite so generous.
“Yes, yes — immensely!” he says, laughing. “Perhaps Americans aren’t as smart as Japanese.”
“Death Note” is now streaming on Netflix.