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Supporting character whitewashed in film adaptation of “Warm Bodies”

April 21, 2012

Issac Marion’s zombie love story novel Warm Bodies is being adapted into a Hollywood film, but some of the diversity in the novel won’t be following it to the big screen.

Warm Bodies was acquired by Summit Entertainment (the same studio that produced The Twilight Saga before Summit Entertainment merged with Lionsgate (the studio that produced The Hunger Games)

In the novel, the best friend of the female lead is a woman named Nora. In the book, Nora is described as half black and half white, with brown skin. In the film, she will be played by white American figure skater, actress, and fashion model Analeigh Tipton.

In the book, Nora is clearly described as having brown skin and being of Ethiopian descent:

“Nora is sitting in the sand in front of the log, playing with some pebelles and pinching a smouldering joint between her middle finger and the stub of her ring finger, missing past the first knuckle. Her eyes are earth brown; her skin is creamy coffee.”

“At least you have some cultural heritage you can hold on to. Your dad was Ethiopian, right?”

“Yeah, but what does that mean to me. He didn’t remember his country, I never went there, and now it doesn’t exist. All that leaves me with is brown skin, and who pays attention to colour any more?” [Nora] waves a hand towards my face. “In a year or two we’re all going to be grey anyway.”

Earlier this month, ComingSoon.net interviewed Tipton about her role in the 2013 film.

“I was really excited to play a character who is in a book. That’s thrilling. And I met the writer, Isaac [Marion] who was like yeah, the character in the book is half black and she is in her 30s and missing a finger. So, my character is a little different. I’m not missing a finger– but all the character traits are there. She is kind of this laid back, really protective, loud–not loud–but outspoken, character that is not afraid to tell people how it is. So, that is a different character than I have ever really played…” – Analeigh Tipton

Last week, author Isaac Marion was also interviewed about his role in the film’s casting process:

“I was consulted in the early stages of the process, and may have helped narrow down the list a little. I’m not sure what would have happened if I seriously objected to any of their casting, but luckily, I didn’t. I love the cast. They paid more attention to the actor’s personalities than their physical appearances, and I think that was the right choice. Personality is what matters in a character, not superficial indicators like height or hairstyle or even skin color, and the personalities of the cast all fit beautifully.” –Warm Bodies author Isaac Marion

Would that “having the right personality for the character” was the only barrier for actors of color in the movie industry.

This statement is a cop out. Given that black actresses still face systemic disadvantages and discrimination in Hollywood, it’s hard to believe that no actresses of color were able to fit the needed “personality” for this established character of color.

Both of these statements gloss over the fact that Nora was a woman of color in a story landscape that primarily featured white characters. While the film is listed as having some actors of color–Cory Hardict will play “Kevin” (a character not in the book) and Ruth Chiang will play “Corpse Attacking Julie”–the main leads are played by white British actor Nicholas Hoult (Skins) and white Australian actress Teresa Palmer (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Conversely, did the production think to check if any actors of color could fit the “character traits” or “personalities” of these lead roles?


Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer in the poster for Warm Bodies

Unlike most big Hollywood films, Warm Bodies does not headline A-listers. Instead, the film stars a young cast of up-and-comers and relative unknowns. Yet, the main leads, “R” and “Julie” were able to stay white, but a supporting character like Nora could not stay black. While “personality” is undoubtedly important to any role, this isn’t the first time “the best actor for the role” excuse has been used to justify taking away yet another limited opportunity for a performer of color. The “personality” argument also suggests that actors of color are not cast in films because they are out-competed by the glowing “personalities” of their white counterparts, rather than locked out by limited roles and opportunities. Regardless of the production’s intentions, their casting decision has reinforced a discriminatory glass ceiling.

This time, they’ve denied an opportunity for an actress of color to play the role of…the best friend of the white lead.

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Anonymous

    Yeah ok bump this shit.

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  • Ebony Cindric

    Great post – I feel really passionately about this topic. Not only are there so few roles for particular ethnicities, now the roles that would otherwise be created by novel adaptations are being written out. It is absolutely not acceptable to disenfranchise coloured actors in such a way.

    The fact that the author himself openly supported the whitewashing baffles me – his defense seems to suggest that the characterisation of Nora as half black and half white in the book was arbitrary anyway. In an industry where black/asian/hispanic actors are rarely given the opportunity to play central, non-typecast roles, whitewashing is an insult.

    • BatmanJesus

      I understand his reaction. Typically, anyone involved in the production of a film is contractually obligated to publicly support all creative decisions whether they agree with them or not. To break that agreement could result in severe blacklisting in Hollywood and even a steep fine, particularly for a relatively unknown writer. He might be seething inside, but knows better than to let it be known. 

      • JB

        Yeah, BatmanJesus is probably right here. I don’t think he actually supports the casting decision, he just wants his book to be turned into a movie, with no distractions.

    • Nehesi

      @ Ebony – I think his response was “what response will get the movie of my book made and get me paid.”  I don’t think he felt he was in a stron enough position to fight for casting that reflected the characters as he saw them.  In addition, like LeGuin, the decision might have been out of his hands – once the rights are sold, Hollywood could do an adaptation with dogs playing all the characters and, you’d have to grin and bear it as the writer.

  • Alexa Orduz

    Yeah, I noticed this some months ago when I read the book and decided to look into the movie production. It’s a shame, there are plenty of great actresses of color that coul’ve played that part. Analeigh Tipton is a model with a pretty skinny resume, and they’re trying to pull the “best actor for the role” spiel? Please. At least it won’t hurt me much to skip this one, the book was pretty blah.

  • Anonymous

    I really need for white authors to be on some Ursula K  Le Guin and Neil Gaiman ish when it comes to writing POC because their books are more likely to be adapted into movie and tv, etc. compared to POC. 

    So if characters of colour are set to be whitewashed they need to speak out and decline it.

    • Jackal

       The sad part is that it wouldn’t help that much.  They made an Earthsea adaptation, and while the author shrieked from the rooftops that the main character was reddish-brown, they cast a white boy anyway.

      • happyappa

        It makes me angry when the authors of these stories basically sell their souls to Hollywood. What I gathered from this post was that Marion supported the whitewashing, because skin color was “superficial”. Like we haven’t heard that one before. Also, why would he even bother making her half Ethiopian in the book then? Also reminds me of the author of Hunger Games, can’t really remember her name, and don’t really care…

        I respect Ursula K. Le Guin for doing the exact opposite. I’m not sure of any author who has fought against whitewashing of their stories (in tv, book covers, etc) and won. There better be, but if anyone could please inform me…

  • http://www.facebook.com/fbromley Frank Bromley

    i could understand why your pissed if this film wasn’t Zombie Twilight i LITERALLY couldn’t give a S**T who they cast

  • Tg

    hmmm… i just don’t get it…don’t know your movie-library but i have a lot of movies with actors in any color and with any personality…some even “blackwashed” if that expression means anything…but i think the idea behind that was the great personality of that specific black actor ;)

    oh btw… what about actors playing their own twins? aren’t there perfectly good twin actors for productions like that?

    and to go back once to the original sin…the last airbender…are their any inuit actors with blue eyes? might the fact that katara and sokka are living in an icy wasteland be the only point for your assumption that they must be inuit? the skin color can’t be a serious argument because even white people can gain much more color than they had…if only being exposed to enough sunlight…

    actually one major point for me loving avatar was that race didn’t matter…the only thing dividing those people were their abilities, ambition and attitude…much like in the real world, but here it is often rerouted on less self-depressing points like “they were so not my race” instead of just saying i just wasn’t good enough.

    I’m not saying “racebending” doesn’t exist! But i just can’t believe anyone anything who comes around and points out every single occasion that might have been one as if it was!

    I just like movies…and it doesn’t matter wether the whole cast or just the lead roles are of “my race” or not. I can connect to the sympathic ones anyway as if they were me since i was a child and i suspect all children do so until they’re told different…and thats the sad part!

    I just don’t know what to think anymore, maybe i buy some really blue glasses and pretend i’m always watching an avatar-sequel…

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/5ZXIEGCAFZ4F7LBI6QTTN3YJCY Ashe

       My goodness.

      Their race is suddenly ambiguous because they have blue eyes? Never mind the brown skin, thick dark hair, clothing, culture and environment…they have blue eyes and now you suddenly question just how Inuit they could possibly be?

      Why do I get the feeling if they were a race of light-skinned blondes with dark brown eyes, you wouldn’t bat an eye?

      The blue represents the fantasy element. Just like the gold with the Firebenders and the green with the Earthbenders. White people do not have exclusive patents to these eye colors, nor do these eye colors suddenly erase the PLETHORA of Asian details surrounding these people.

      I’ll sum this up if you don’t feel like reading. They’re not white. And they were made white. In an industry that has white people overwhelmingly dominating leading roles.

      There’s a song that goes something like this: “Anything you can do, I can do better…”

      Replace ‘you’ with ‘people of color’ and ‘I’ with ‘white people’ and you might get an idea of what I’m saying. Or not. You made up the term ‘blackwashed’, after all.

    • Yana

       That was a highly ignorant comment.  There are loads of people with melanin living in cold climates, so what exactly is your point?  There are loads of people who have dark-skin and light eyes, so what exactly is your point?

    • Nehesi

      TG – You clearly state “race didn’t matter”.  So, it didn’t matter that all the evil fire-bending people in the movie were of color and all the good benders were not?

  • jubilantia

    This is ridiculous. I know you can argue to change the character’s race when it doesn’t really have any bearing on the character, although that’s still a flimsy excuse. However, it looks like it’s a pretty significant part of the identity here. Not okay, movie people. Not okay.

  • Mary Mary

    Loved the book.  But this cemented the fact that I won’t be seeing this crap.

  • nmatrix

    Hello everyone,

    Black guy chiming in:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is noticing this trend in Hollywood. Essentially you have to understand mindset of Hollywood which is essentially petty superficial ego amplification via racial domination. Whose ego you ask? Well they want to ingratiate the largest cross section (in their minds) of the American market, which happens to be white Americans. Which is why no matter how a character in a book is written (they could be described as dark as onyx). You can bet your ass one way or another Hollywood casting will find one way or another to white-wash the hell outta that character. To basically “appeal” and provide visual “comfort” to many brain dead superficial Americans. Most authors are going to bend over backwards to try and justify the white washing as ironically “Hey it’s not the skin color that counts, it’s the personality!” or some other patronizing, cop-out bullshit. They are simply caught in a bind of the Hollywood white-washing casting machine. Sad thing is you can’t argue with them, because that would entail self-reflection which could lead to embarrassing shame so they’ll set up as many lame excuses as possible to maintain their cognitive dissonance.

  • Andre

    Since I am not American I may not understand all of the issues, but I think one problem might be that many producers/writers/actors etc. are unable to think outside the box, quite literally, they cannot imagine an everday American who is not Anglo-American (seriously when was the last time you even saw a white character on screen that wasn’t Anglo?). And this is not limited to depictions of people of their own countries but to that of others as well I think, even if checking the situation up close would be very easy. To give an example:
    A while ago I was curious how a comic from the Marvel series Generation Hope depicted the city I live in, since the issue had a story playing in Berlin, Germany.
    I just thought what da f$&&$U§)=§$&!!!!
    Not only was the person in the center of the trouble blond, you also didn’t see any person that was not of pink skin and no one had a hair color darker than light brown, no dark brown and definitely no black hair, despite the fact how common these colors are over here. The story clearly played close to the center of Berlin and here you see lots of people from East Asia, Mediterranian, Near East and Subsaharan Africa all the time, fitting for a metropolis. You would alone due to all the tourists, not to mention all the immigrants and naturalized Germans. This comic didn’t even show the actual look of german people, no matter how you define the term. It was downright insulting. I could understand when the majority where white (since this is a fact) or that the faces all looked alike (due to drawing style) or that the featured hospital had no name (perhaps due to legal issues; since I don’t know a hospital in this city who doesn’t have a name of its own and even if not they would at least carry the name of the district) but this stereotypical portrayal was just downright insulting. A small google search for pictures of the city would have made it clear, but no, that apparently wasn’t done.
    So perhaps when some producers and the like say that “personality won” they might really mean it, because they are quite literally incapable of understanding the problem.

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  • Anonymous

    Aisha Tyler would have been great for this role as an older, savvy tough lady. This IS a copout. I was saddened when I saw the trailer as I loved half black half white Nora.

  • Luke

    I think this is being taken a little too seriously…. I love the actress who is playing Nora; she fits her part well and was what I expected. I think the issue above is a big issue in Hollywood…but I don’t know if this is the right movie to be criticizing it on.

    • Anonymous

      Why not?

    • Venom

      No this is the right movie, you’re love for this actress is preventing you from being objective. How the hell does she “fit her part well” when the part is a black woman? Seriously, how?

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  • life’s a tragedy

    At times like this I wonder what if the terminator was an Asian guy? Or what if batman was played by an African American? I’m pretty sure that NO amount of personality would be acceptable and taken into consideration in Hollywood if the actors for those roles weren’t Caucasian. Heck you would hear the American public screaming that the producers were completely blind in choosing the actors for those roles. But if the reverse were to happen then all of a sudden bs excuses such as personality all of a sudden seem so valid. Bunch of hypocrites…..

  • James Dominguez

    Funny how the reverse situation, which is much rare, generates more online controversy. Remember when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor and the fanboys went fucking berserk? Whitewash Katniss or the Airbender, though, and the same fanboys will start going about “the right actor for the role” and “transcending skin colour”. I hate hypocrites.

  • Ruby

    This reminds me of the time I watched West Side Story a while ago. About an hour into the movie, I came to realize that I was not looking at Puerto Rican actors, but white actors wearing “brown face.” It made sense because everyone was SO dark, when I know many Puerto Ricans who are not, plus their accents were awful. Of course, we’d never get away with that today. That being said, I remember when the Dragon Ball movie came out. Instead of hiring an Asian actor, they hired a white dude. The main character was supposed to be Goku, an Asian male. That’s just saddening. Not to mention that most of the time, whenever there’s a movie starring mostly minorities, it’s treated as such. A “black movie,” or something. And even in commercials when they use black people, they usually use light skinned actors. I’ve been to many Latin countries, and for the most part, the people on billboards are the more European looking Hispanics This isn’t an American problem, it’s a worldwide problem.

  • A.K

    Watch what would happen if it were a black character playing a white character from the book. All hell would break loose.

  • daynabell

    Personally I feel that she did well playing Nora, and I think people are taking things a little too far :) just my opinion

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