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From 'The Good Earth' to 'Akira:' White actors, non-white roles

Photo by Fotographia Guerilla/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Hollywood casting controversy has been gathering steam lately, not because there is anything particularly new at its core, but because there isn't. It involves the casting of white actors in non-white roles, something that has been happening for decades and is not, on its face, much of a surprise. The surprising thing is that it's still happening in 2011.

The film in question is an adaptation of the Japanese science-fiction manga series Akira, which was made into an animated film in 1988. Last week, Deadline New York posted a short list of the actors who had received scripts for the live action film project.

For the role one of the lead characters, Tetsuo, on the list were "Twilight" vampire/heartthrob Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, and James McAvoy. Actors receiving scripts for the role of another lead character, Kaneda, were Garrett Hedlund, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, Justin Timberlake and Joaquin Phoenix.

An adaptation of a Japanese manga series with characters named Tetsuo and Kaneda - and no Asians? It's not the only recent casting choice of this ilk that has drawn criticism. There were no actors of Middle Eastern descent among the leads in last year's "Prince of Persia," to cite just one example.

It's been more than 60 years since the same criticism was heard over the casting choices for "The Good Earth," a film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's novel set in China that starred Paul Muni, Luise Ranier and Tilly Losch as the Chinese lead characters. Asian American actors were passed over for principal roles and cast only in supporting roles. Ranier, a German actress, won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Chinese woman. The three lead actors were foreign-born, with Muni and Losch born in Austria. But as the crow flies, that's still a long way from China.

As the Akira casting story has spread, so has an angry reaction online., a website that advocates for minorities in entertainment, recently started a Facebook campaign in protest. In a recent post, the site also noted that in the few instances in which an Asian actor has been cast in an Asian lead role, the actors have been Asian nationals, not Asian American actors.

Akira is a plum project, and it would be hard to imagine anyone offered one of the lead roles saying no. But there was a precedent set recently when Johnny Depp nixed plans to star in an upcoming film as Pancho Villa. According to a story earlier this month, Depp was quoted as saying, "I feel like the part should be played by a Mexican. Not some mutt from Kentucky. ... I still feel very strongly about that.”

Possible replacements mentioned in the story were Gael Garcia Bernal, who is Mexican, and Benicio del Toro, who is Puerto Rican. Not Mexican, but Puerto Rico is a little closer to Mexico than Kentucky.