Scarlett Johansson remains among the highest-earning actresses in Hollywood. She has turned Marvel's Black Widow into a pop culture icon, and received critical acclaim for Lost in Translation and Under the Skin. She also remains a controversial figure due to her tendency to take roles that seem a bad fit, most notably her performance as the Major in 2017's Ghost in the Shell.
In a recent interview, Johansson was quoted as saying, "You know, as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job." While she quickly clarified that her perspective reflects an ideal world, divorced from social and historical factors, there's a distinct problem with what Johansson said. No, you shouldn't be able to play any role offered to you.
It's impossible to discuss this matter without first going into the roles Johansson has played. It often seems like she, as her quote implied, believes an actor can and should be able to play any role. She portrayed Kaa the snake in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, the A.I. Samantha in Her and the enigmatic alien in Under the Skin. However, she also portrayed the Major in Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of Shirow Masamune's manga of the same name. The Major, in the source material and in every other adaptation, is Japanese. She's a cyborg, yes, but she's a native of Japan working for the Japanese government. Johansson is decidedly not Japanese.
She was also initially set to star in Rub & Tug, the story of a real-life trans man named Dante "Tex" Gill. Johansson responded to the backlash by pointing to other cis actors who have played trans characters: "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment.”
However, Johansson withdrew from Rub & Tug days later, saying, in part, " "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive. I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues."
Johansson's lament about "political correctness" has to be viewed within the historical context of Hollywood, which long cast white actors in minority roles. For instance, John Wayne starred as Genghis Khan in the 1956 epic The Conqueror. Everyone in the film, about the founder of the Mongol Empire, was white. While it's easy to write the film off as a disaster (and it was), casting white actors to play people of color is a lengthy, shameful practice.
Mickey Rooney infamously played Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive caricature, in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's; Laurence Fishburne's 1995 turn as Othello was the first time an adaptation by a major studio had featured an African-American in the title role. Let that sink in.
It's hardly a matter relegated to the distant past, either. The 2016 fantasy Gods of Egypt was widely criticized for casting white performers like Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Geoffrey Rush as ancient Egyptian deities. With the exception of the Fire Nation, every character in 2010's The Last Airbender, based on a popular animated fantasy inspired by Asian cultures, was white. And the 2016 monster movie The Great Wall, set in 9th-century China, was accused of whitewashing for focusing on star Matt Damon, who played a European mercenary, over its Chinese cast.
The Damage of Whitewashing
Every non-white character played by a white actor potentially could have been the breakout performance for a person of color. When Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, it sparked controversy for casting African-American actor Duane Jones in the lead role. Since then, more people of color have reclaimed roles in genre films. However, many of those parts reinforced racial stereotypes.
People of color have historically been sidelined or removed from their own stories. The few roles best suited for these actors have often been taken away from them. This is not the same as when a straight, cis, white character is race-changed, which offers an actor not typically cast in such roles a chance for a meaty, complex job. There's no "reverse-whitewashing."
The same is true for trans actors. Johansson previously referenced cis actors who have played trans characters. Why couldn't those characters be portrayed by trans actors, who have been denied roles in Hollywood? Jared Leto's Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club could've gone to a trans actor.
After years of acting jobs being handed to people who don't resemble the characters they're hired to portray, actors of color, queer actors and trans actors are tired. They want those roles back.
Where Johansson Fits In
Consider Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, whose most famous role is in Pacific Rim. Why is Johansson better suited for the role of a Japanese character? There are so few opportunities in Hollywood for people of color, but the few potential follow-up roles for these actors are taken away -- although that's not to say Kikuchi was necessarily the best actress to play the Major.
Johansson is already a star. She could have chosen virtually any role in Hollywood (particularly after the blockbuster success of 2014's Lucy) -- one better suited for her that didn't potentially take away a role from either a new, talented Asian actress or else another established talent. But you know who finally seems to realize that? Johansson herself.
Following her controversial statements, Johansson clarified, "I recognize that in reality, there is a widespread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis-gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included."
So, Johansson does understand this. Hopefully she will support actors of color and trans actors, and use her privileged position to further help them gain better roles.