Brad Pitt, 43rd highest-grossing movie star ever, gets mired in a whitewashing controversy

His new film Bullet Train is the latest to be accused of casting white actors in non-white roles

However the film itself turns out, there are reasons to celebrate the upcoming release of David Leitch’s Bullet Train. In an era where little else but franchise movies make money, let us thank the cinema gods for a big-budget action film derived from nothing other than a well-liked Japanese novel. And Bullet Train has a proper movie star in it to boot. One of the few still standing. We can spend August cheering the continued godhood of Brad Pitt. As he advances towards his 60th year, he can claim the late summer as his own with no risk of catcalls from the orchestra stalls. Right?

Sadly that is not how the discourse now works. Bullet Train has already got itself mired in controversy for exchanging the Japanese characters in Kōtarō Isaka’s source book with American counterparts. Joey King, Sandra Bullock and Michael Shannon join Pitt in the breakneck tale of an assassin trying to retrieve a suitcase from, yes, a hurtling train. The film is the latest to be accused of whitewashing – casting white actors in non-white roles.

David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, outlined the objections to AsEmNews. “I absolutely think charges of whitewashing are accurate as this is a story based around what were originally Japanese characters and it remains set in Japan,” he said. “Foreigners, or gaijin, remain a distinct minority in Japan, and to populate the movie with so many in the leading roles is ignoring the setting.”

It is worth clarifying exactly what is (and what is not) going on here. There are two distinct – and, one might reasonably argue, not equally unethical – classes of cinematic whitewashing. Hollywood’s habit of “blacking up” or “yellowing up” actors to play non-white roles has a long and unhappy history. In 1938 Luise Rainer, of German Jewish descent, won an Oscar for playing a Chinese character in The Good Earth. Lawrence Olivier thought little about blacking up to play the title role of Othello.


The most notorious “yellowface” incident was Mickey Rooney’s turn as Audrey Hepburn’s offensively stereotyped neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The veteran actor essentially recreated a racist cartoon – the sort of thing US propagandists might have distributed during the second World War.

It is really only in the past 20 years or so that the practice has become even halfway unacceptable. There was the odd case of Anthony Hopkins as an African-American academic in the 2003 adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Crucially, the Welsh actor was playing a man who passed convincingly for white – to such an extent that he was accused of anti-black racism – but the casting still felt uncomfortable.

Johnny Depp, who played Tonto in the 2013 Lone Ranger, claimed some Native American heritage. A tipping point seemed to be reached when Scarlett Johansson, to many boos, played “Motoko Kusanagi” in 2017′s Ghost in the Shell. That degree of ambiguity is now largely rejected.

Brad Pitt in Bullet Train
Brad Pitt in Bullet Train

Anyway, that is not what is happening with Brad Pitt. We are relieved to confirm that, unlike Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice, he is not being smeared with yellow pancake as his eyes are taped back. As David Inoue confirms, the characters in Bullet Train are no longer Japanese.

Switching ethnicities remains a fairly common (if cynical) operation in Hollywood – particularly with Asian sources. In the fine Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise played an American character who was Japanese in the original novel. The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, based on a 1960s manga, also switched Japanese characters for US ones.

Whereas such racial shell games may not be so actively offensive as dressing Lord Olivier up as a “moor”, they do take work from actors whose ethnic identities correspond to the source characters. Or do they? If cornered in quiet, producers might argue that larger-budgeted English-language versions of Japanese originals simply wouldn’t get made without superstars recognisable to US audiences. And few of those actors are currently from Japanese backgrounds.

The response in Japan to the Bullet Train discourse has been mixed. The author of the book seems largely behind the project. “What’s this Japan!?,” Kōtarō Isaka wrote on seeing the trailer. “Even though I was surprised, I was excited by the gorgeous actors and their energetic, violent scenes! I hope it will be a fun movie that will drive away dark feelings!”

Japan Today drily noted the liberties taken with their nation in the promo – signs back to front, a “quiet car” unknown on Japanese trains – while failing to find much outrage among everyday punters in the comments. “It’s not the same as the original, but it seems to have been adapted for Hollywood without ruining Isaka’s style,” one read.

Nonetheless, Hollywood’s continuing insistence on whiting-up Asian characters does prompt one to wonder about the soundness of the industry’s thinking. The money men felt no black star could open a film until they finally gave Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith to chance to prove them wrong. The current kerfuffle comes at a time when shares in the very concept of the movie star are in freefall. With all due respect to the charming Tom Holland, it was Spider-Man who sold all those tickets for No Way Home last Christmas.

Well, we still have Brad Pitt. Or do we? The Numbers, a website tracking box office revenue, places him at a remote number 43 in its chart of highest grossing movie stars ever – with Hugh Jackman just ahead and former wrestler Dave Bautista just behind. Many of those above him have appeared in multiple Marvel films, but Pitt is still well behind superhero virgins such as Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Steve Carell. Samuel L Jackson tops them all.

The news gets more depressing when you learn that Pitt is barely in the film that officially registers as his highest grossing ever: Deadpool 2. He has never been in a movie that took more than a billion dollars and has been in only two – Deadpool 2 and World War Z – that have trousered more than half a billion. These are the voodoo economics of the film business. Brad Pitt can get films made. He is less good at ensuring people come to see the damn things.

We, nonetheless, wish Bullet Train well.

Bullet Train opens on August 3rd.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist