Whitewashing? A look at film casting for Girl with all the Gifts
The character of Miss Justineau in The Girl with all the Gifts will not be played by a black actress, although the character of Melanie will be. Why?
UPDATE: You can read our review of The Girl with all the Gifts, now that we’ve seen the film.
If you haven’t read The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R.Carey yet, you really should. It’s the most wonderful book. Described by author Jenny Colgan as “Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) meets The Walking Dead“, it’s a beautifully-written apocalyptic thriller centred around an unusual little girl called Melanie who’s being taught – and restrained – in an institution where only teacher Miss Justineau recognises her talents and potential. The institution is the only world that Melanie knows, but the world outside is very different to anything she could have imagined…
Miss Justineau, the teacher, is a gorgeously evoked character. She’s just as much a main protagonist as Melanie is. The first ten pages of the book make it very clear that Miss Justineau is a woman of colour.
On Miss Justineau’s skin, as described by Melanie:
Miss Justineau’s face stands out because it’s such a wonderful, wonderful colour. It’s dark brown, like the wood of the trees in Melanie’s rainforest picture whose seeds only grow out of the ashes of a bushfire, or like the coffee that Miss Justineau pours into her flask at break time. Except it’s darker and richer than either of those things, with lots of other colours mixed in, so there isn’t anything you can really compare it to. All you can say is that it’s as dark as Melanie’s skin is light.
On Miss Justineau’s hair:
It’s usually down, and it’s long and black and really crinkly so it looks like a waterfall. But sometimes she ties it up in a knot on the back of her head, really tight, and that is good too, because it makes her face sort of stand out more, almost like she’s a statue on the side of the temple, holding up the ceiling. A caryatid.
On Miss Justineau’s general appearance in a short story written by Melanie in class:
Once upon a time there was a very beautiful woman. The most beautiful and kind and clever and amazing woman in all the world. She was tall and not bent over, with skin so dark she was like her own shadow, and long black hair that curled around so much it made you dizzy to look at her.
So it seems pretty obvious that author M. R. Carey has gone to some trouble to ensure the reader knows that Miss Justineau is a black woman very early on, so she can be pictured clearly.
There are so many wonderful black actresses who could have played Justineau and could have done justice to such an amazing role. Instead, Miss Helen Justineau will be played by Gemma Arterton.
Girl with all the Gifts casting:
We have no wish to cast any aspersions on Arterton’s acting prowess. She is likely to play Miss Justineau to great effect (although the character in the book was an older woman, and it would be great to see more older women commanding screen time on the silver screen). Any thoughts on the reasons behind the casting are all conjecture, although it’s hoped that more thoughtfulness has gone into the casting than has so often occurred in instances of Hollywood whitewashing.
It’s a painfully long list, but to name just a few casting errors we’ve had whitewashing controversy in Avatar: The Last Airbender (Katara and Sokka – see pic below). Then we’ve had a white actor playing Goku in Dragonball:Evolution…Hollywood whitewashing has been going on since Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and even earlier still.
One very positive aspect of the casting is that Sennia Nanua has been cast in the role of Melanie. Again, like Arterton, we suspect she’ll do the role justice – in terms of talent, the roll-call of actors is impressive. It’s also great to see a black actress take on the role of Melanie, a very clever and proactive young girl. However, it’s hard not to think about potential issues of line count and salary. A child actor is unlikely to command the same salary as a leading role. A child actor is likely to get less screen time, and certainly fewer lines. It’s hoped that young actors of colour will grow to adulthood in a film industry that doesn’t by default give the key roles, the greatest number of lines and (potentially) the highest salaries to white actresses and actors.
The film adaptation of The Girl with all the Gifts has had the good fortune to be based on a great book. A book that clearly had a woman of colour as one of its main protagonists. At this point in time, it’s hard to know for sure why the race of the two key characters holding the book together was reversed. Let’s hope it’s not a typical case of Hollywood whitewashing at work.