Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Spike Lee tweets about diversity in “Oldboy”

August 10, 2012

On August 3rd, 2012, Angry Asian Man leaked a casting breakdown for the Oldboy American remake. Mandate Films (a division of Lionsgate) is producing, Spike Lee is set to direct, and Josh Brolin is set to star. This was a casting breakdown for some of the supporting roles, and it’s pretty horrendous.

Above: Promotional image of the original Oldboy (2003)

Feature Film

Director: Spike Lee
Exec. Producer: Spike Lee
Producers: Nathan Kahane, Doug Davison, Roy Lee, John Powers Middleton
Co-Producer/Writer: Mark Protosevich
Screen Play: Jo-Yun, Chun-hyung Lim, Chan-wook Park
Casting Director: Kim Coleman
Casting Associate: Jackie Sollitto
Casting Assistant: Keisha Richardson
Callbacks: Aug. 12, 2012 (Sunday)
Shooting / Start: October 1, 2012
Location: New Orleans


[WALLACE SHARKEY] Male, 60ish, Caucasian. Joe’s well-tailored, slickster boss.

[DONNA HAWTHORNE] Female, Mid 20s, Caucasian. Joe’s ex-wife and mother of Mia. Once a homecoming queen, now a stripped down hardworking single mom.

[DAVE BERMAN] Mid 40s to 50s. African-American. Shlubby, but very welthy businessman. Joe hits on his much younger girlfriend.

[ASIAN WOMAN] Female, Early to mid 20s, Asian. A mysterious exotic beauty sitting at the bar observing Joe. MARTIAL ARTS EXPERIENCE A PLUS

[CHUCKY] Male, Mid 40s, Caucasian. A free spirited likeable human teddy bear who sports loud vintage Hawaiian shirts. Joe’s best friend.

[BROWNING] Male. Caucasian. Small in stature. A career criminal with pockmarked skin.

[CORTEZ] Latin male. 50s. A bullishly strong street thug/criminal.

[JAKE PRESTON] Male, Mid 30s to mid 40s, Caucasian. A clean cut tough looking former cop; the no-nonsense host of the TV show “Unsolved Crimes.”

[ADULT MIA] Female, Early 20s, Caucasian. A musical prodigy on cello. Sensitive, intelligent, beautiful but humble. CELLO EXPERIENCE A PLUS.

[GRACE] Female, 50s, African American. A drug addicted nutcase in the Mobile Hospital.

[JOHNNY] Male, Mid 40s to 50s, Caucasian. A disheveled, schizophrenic man who is on the street near the Mobile Hospital unit.

[A BURLY MAN] Male, 40s, Caucasian. Muscular and serious with close-cropped hair.

[THE CHECKPOINT] Male, 40s, Open Ethnicity. A serious looking sort (probably trying to hold down two or three jobs to support his family) who is sitting at a desk in the underground parking garage.

[EDWINA BURKE] Female, Late 50s to early 60s, Caucasian, distinguished-looking. She is from Evergreen Academy where Joe attended school. She is tough, smart, and very much a lady, but a lonely one.

[SECURITY GUARD] Male, 40s to 50s, Caucasian. The guard at Evergreen Academy that patrols the grounds and takes his job a bit more seriously than he needs to.

[AMANDA PRYCE] Female, 14, Caucasian. Adrian’s younger sister. She is pretty, yet shy and a bit awkward-looking.

[YOUNG JOE DOUCETTE] Male, 17, Caucasian. A young Josh Brolin.

Filming is in New Orleans–where two out of three people are people of color–yet, 12 of the 17 roles are only looking for “Caucasian” actors. One role–for a parking lot attendant–is labeled as “open ethnicity” (according to Larry Williams of Williams Talent Agency, roles like that go to Caucasian actors about 60% of the time even when actors of color submit.)

Three of the remaining roles are open to actors of color, but are egregiously stereotypical. A “shlubby” African American businessman. Looking for a Latin actor to play a “bullishly strong street thug/criminal.

The breakdowns for the women of color are seriously problematic, too. The casting call wants white women to play a “former homecoming queen,” “sensitive, intelligent, beautiful but humble” cellist, a “distinguished-looking” woman who is “tough and smart,” and “pretty, yet shy and a bit awkward looking” younger sister. These white women characters have full names. In contrast, the casting call for the African American “Grace” simply describes her as a “drug addicted nutcase.” Her only physical descriptor? Not that she is sensitive, intelligent, distinguished looking, tough, pretty, or awkward–only that she is African American. The casting call for the Asian woman doesn’t even give the character a name and simply describes her as a “mysterious exotic beauty” and if that doesn’t seem trite and stereotypical enough, adds “MARTIAL ARTS EXPERIENCE A PLUS” written in all caps.

Spike Lee is one of America’s most acclaimed directors of color, so it was hard to believe that these were casting calls for a movie directed by him. Lee has always pushed for representation for actors of color and has been a trailblazer in the industry. He has been vocal about discrimination in Hollywood and has paid a professional price for it, as his co-producer James McBride notes in his essay on 40 Acres, “Being a Maid.”

America is a super power not because we make the biggest guns. We’re a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levis, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Jazz, Rhythm n Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, and Hip Hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb can. When you can make a person think a certain way, you don’t have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide screen 3D TV, some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words, elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about, makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of Blacks, the African American experience in music, dance, art and literature.

But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers – Blacks, Asians, Latinos and people of color – at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. Three days ago, at the premiere of Red Hook Summer at The Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as any American I know– lost his cool for 30 seconds. When prompted by a question from Chris Rock who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did “Red Hook Summer” independently was because he could not get Hollywood to green light the follow-up to “Inside Man” – which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide – plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales.

Within minutes, the internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of “Red Hook Summer” by so-called film critics and tweeters. I don’t mind negative reviews. That’s life in the big leagues. But it’s the same old double standard. The recent success of “Red Tails” which depicts the story of the all black Tuskegee Airmen, is a clear example. Our last film, “Miracle At St. Anna,” which paid homage to the all-black 92nd Division, which fought on the ground in Italy, was blasted before it even got out the gate.

Maybe it’s a terrible film. Maybe it deserved to bomb. The difference is this: When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent. Spike’s been saying the same thing for 25 years. And he had to go to Italy to raise money for a film that honors American soldiers, because unlike Lucas, he’s not a billionaire. He couldn’t reach in his pocket to create, produce, market, and promote his film like Lucas did with “Red Tails.”

[By the way, be sure to support Red Hook Summer this weekend as it opens in theaters! It’s the latest film in Lee’s Chronicles of Brooklyn series.]

As Salon.com reported last week in it’s article on film casting, “Please Submit All Ethnicities”, directors usually delegate the work around preparing the wording of casting calls, or “breakdowns.” Most casting breakdowns are prepared by casting directors or outsourced to the Breakdown Services company. However, Breakdown Services’s Thom Goff told reporter Nina Shen Rastogi that most ethnic designations in casting calls are either “taken from the script or requested specifically by the creative team.”

We tweeted Spike Lee to see if we could learn more about what the deal was behind the eyebrow-raising casting breakdowns.

In the above screencap, Racebending tweets Spike Lee about the casting call. Lee responds “People you need to relax. The cast of Old Boy will be diverse. If you think otherwise you do not know my work. Bothero ther directors ’bout dat.” Racebending asks why the casting calls fo women of color were so badly worded and Lee says “All that stuff has been changed.”

It is remarkable that fans are now able to tweet a creator and get an instantaneous response and assurances that a project will be diverse. [We followed up via email with casting director Kim Coleman to learn more about changes that were made, but it has been several business days and we have yet to hear anything back.]

Whether or not the Oldboy adaptation will be representative and diverse is a separate question from the “purist” debate about whether or not a remake should be made (the original South Korean film is in and of itself an adaption of a Japanese manga, after all.) And that’s something I want to distinguish here at Racebending.com. For us, it’s not about accurately canonizing the source material so much as it is about ensuring that movie studios make a good faith effort to be inclusive of continually underrepresented groups.

Hollywood’s current default practice of “Americanizing” an adaptation of a film from Asia includes changing the lead character from an Asian man to a white man, even though there are Asian American men in the United States, including in the settings where these stories are relocated to. The protagonist is never “Americanized” to be an Asian American guy, or a Latino guy, or an African American woman–no, a vital step of “Americanizing” a story seems to be rebuilding an existing story around a white American man as the focal point. There are already so many films with white male leads. If remakes and adaptations of stories about characters of color are also “adapted” to white male leads, then when will actors of color ever get a chance to star?

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, History and Concepts

About the Author

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

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  • happyappa

    I didn’t know Old Boy was based off a Japanese manga, that’s good to know. Either way, I don’t see why stories in Asia with all Asians, when transferred to an “American” setting, have to undergo whitewashing. Why can’t they just keep all the characters Japanese or South Korean? I’m curious why they even bother remaking it? Why can’t people watch an English dub or watch with subtitles? Or does it have to have an American stamp on it to be great?

  • Unknown

    “Bother other directors”?? Other directors are not whitewashing Oldboy, Mr. Lee, YOU ARE.
    Ossie Davis is rolling in his grave.

  • Pingback: An “Old Boy” American Remake? WTF?!? « Which Way to Hollywood?()

  • Venom

    Thank you for finally addressing this. But why on earth should we support Red Hook Summer? Spike Lee here has proved himself to be a whitewasher and a hypocrite. Why should I give a dime to this sellout?

    • Because Red Hook Summer was dismissed by Hollywood because it had a cast of color and because when Spike Lee spoke out about discrimination against people of color in the media he was punished for it. He also gets more flak than many white directors who do not try to include diversity at all (eg. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”) but more people who support diversity will have paid to see TDKR than will go see Red Hook Summer. Support Red Hook Summer not because of Spike Lee, but to show Hollywood that you support films with people of color.

  • Pingback: An American “Old Boy” Remake? WTF?!? | Which Way to Hollywood()

  • Anonymous

    Strange that Spike Lee would get caught up in this type of controversy given his outspokenness on racial issues in his and other people’s movies. I recall him getting into a spat with Clint Eastwood because in his opinion, Clint’s WWII movies lacked racial diversity.

  • Corrie

    This is so incredibly out of continuity with all of he previous work… I’m very confused.

    I wonder if he might be doing this to prove a point. If the movie does better than all his other movies he has a much better platform to talk about the racial issues in Hollywood casting. People will have to listen when he says “This movie did well because I conformed by casting whites as leads instead of POC. Hollywood is racist.”.

    Or maybe he’s just getting older and tired. Maybe he wants some recognition so he’s caving in and not fighting for POC on this one just to get his skills as a director acknowledged without the controversy…. I mean jeez how often has he fought for this and been branded a racist or crazy black militant? Maybe he deserves a pardon and less flak from us for this one time because none of the other directors of the movies racebending has critiqued have a track record that is even close to his.

    • Venom

      It’s for that very reason that he should be criticized more harshly. This is someone who should *know better* and now an active part of the discrimination he’s supposedly against. That’s called hypocrisy.

      Anyway, it looks like his claim that the cast would be diverse is a complete lie. In the cast of note I only see Samuel L. Jackson and Lance Reddick, who both will likely be pretty minor roles. And as mentioned in the article, this is set in New Orleans.

      I can understand wanting to do something different, but why a movie that whitewashes? Why not a completely original script?

      • Corrie

        I do agree that he’s wrong but what about the idea that he could be trying to prove a point? No one could argue or call him a reverse racist when this movie does well and he says it’s because of the casting.