Star Trek Into Darkness and Using Secrecy to Sneak In Whitewashing

This is mostly links to what some other people have written, but it’s a point I wanted to discuss with the people here.

Warning: Spoilers for Star Trek!  (Which is ironic, if you read the links below.)

For the two people who don’t know, the new Star Trek movie cast very very white Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic Star Trek villain Khan, a role that was made iconic by Ricardo Montalbán, a man of color.

As would be expected, a lot of people are complaining vociferously about the whitewashing, including me.  (And the other racism in the movie, and the sexism . . .)  As well we should!  But whitewashing isn’t new; Hollywood does it all the damn time.

Where Star Trek Into Darkness is unique is that the powers that be attached their whitewashing to a plot point they explicitly coded as SUPER SEKRIT.  This didn’t strike me until it was pointed out to me, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Racebending sums it up thusly:

Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of ‘best actor for the job, not racism’ becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. […] They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released—Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line. […] This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.

User Greywash on Dreamwidth goes even further:

And this is why I am so angry. The filmmakers, either deliberately or accidentally (SPOILER: I COMPLETELY 100% THINK IT WAS DELIBERATE) manipulated a social custom of their fanbase to limit the amount of potentially revenue-reducing communication that would occur between fans. They have put me in the revolting position of having to put something that I know that a nonzero number of people reading this would consider to merit boycotting this movie in its entirety behind a cut.  The makers of Star Trek have not only done something tactless, insensitive, and racist, they have made it hard to talk about, they have made it hard for people to find out about, and they have made it easy for people who would not give them money for it to give them money for it, unknowingly, unwittingly, and unwillingly.

And in the comments to Greywash’s article, there’s a fantastic comparison to Iron Man 3 and how those producers handled the publicity regarding people’s fears of racism in The Mandarin.  I won’t say more or quote because if you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet you should see it unspoiled, but follow the link if you’ve already seen it!

The one good thing that seems to have come out of the SUPER SEKRITNESS of Cumberbatch playing Khan is that John Cho was able to give the proverbial finger to the casting.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video (also embedded below).  Skip to 1:48. The stars are being asked in a pre-release promo who their favorite ST villain is, and several of them are shown saying, “Benedict Cumberbatch in this upcoming movie!  It’s going to be awesome!”  What does John Cho say?

“Ricardo Montalbán as Khan.  He was badass.  And a man of color, I might add.”

And the rest of the cast, who all know he’s CURRENTLY BEING WHITEWASHED IN THE UPCOMING MOVIE, laugh nervously.  (FUCK YEAH JOHN CHO.)  It’s a small retaliation, but I wonder if the powers that be knew they’d be allowing their cast to shoot them in the foot when they insisted on the secrecy.  (And if they fire John Cho for this, I will never give the reboot franchise another dime.)

What do you all think?  Did the producers hammer on the unnecessary secrecy intentionally to avoid bad pre-release publicity?  Is there any way to deal with it if/when producers pull similar shenanigans in the future?

20 thoughts on “Star Trek Into Darkness and Using Secrecy to Sneak In Whitewashing

  1. The whitewashing of Khan was complete and utter bullshit, and in a movie where his role was almost unneeded to boot! There was NO reason to include Khan in this movie, especially when the main bad guy was Admiral Angry Military Robocop, Peter Wellers, but they had him in there played by Super Benederp Cucumberpatchkid.

    And at this point, I really don’t give a damn if I spoiled the movie. It’s a Wrath of Khan ripoff with lazy, racist writing.

    Iron Man 3 did it right, and not only did they do it right in that movie, they did it as a criticism of the Western culture of fear of The Other, especially in this day and age.

    • Haven’t seen Iron Man 3 but I don’t know about it. The Mandarin being a cultural appropriator rather than Fu Manchu with ten magic rings doesn’t seem like that much of an improvement. Just how badly do they want to use him?

      • The way they did the Mandarin actually worked for me. I certainly wouldn’t say that other people might not find things to critique in the portrayal, but to me it worked as a very strong criticism of the Western demonization of (and lack of understanding of) anything not Western.

    • Oh how much I agree with you. As a fan of ST I had so, so, so many other problems with this movie in addition to the whitewashing. WHY DID THEY USE KHAN, WHY.

  2. It also gives them an excuse, as a white man I was having this conversation with pointed out: “they were going for secrecy, and casting an Indian or a Mexican would totally give it away!”

    Because yay white male default, I guess?

    • What….what….I don’t even…..

      Seriously? Now they’re not even using the secrecy as an excuse to HIDE the whitewashing, but as an excuse to DO it????

      No. No. FAIL.

  3. The obvious solution is to note whitewash the character (or the future in general) in the first place.

    That said, perhaps insisting in secrecy just makes things worse.

    • The obvious solution is to note whitewash the character (or the future in general) in the first place.

      Ha, well, yes, I agree with you there.

      But assuming movie studios are going to keep doing this, and I can only assume they are, is there anything *we* can do to fight back about it? Basically, I’m asking the question because I want this sort of thing to hurt the bottom line of the movie, and criticism after the fact can’t have as much impact on that. Obviously we don’t have much control, but if there were some sort of fandom re-thinking surrounding how spoilers are treated when it’s something like THIS…..

      • I think we’d have to get involved in the pre-production part, or at least prior to casting. Like, if you know a franchise is going to be made into a film (or three), begin the conversation right away about the importance of representation.

  4. This has been a really major element in the white washing and from priviledged self-absorbed fools stifling discussion of it. I’ve seen discussions about it, calling it out, being stomped all over by people screaming about spoiler warnings and how there’s no point to them seeing the film now, how-very-dare-you

    Yay, priorities!

    • Wow. Ugh.

      The weirdest thing about this, to me, is that it’s not really a spoiler. It’s not a twist — it’s not like we think Benedict Cumberbatch is playing a good guy and then we find out he’s really Khan in disguise. He’s a big bad villain, and then we find out he’s a . . . different big bad villain than we thought he was. How does that spoil anything? The more I think about it, the more the secrecy thing feels so manufactured to me. I don’t know whether it was a publicity thing to hype up the movie or specifically engineered to hide the whitewashing, but it’s just weird.

      And whether the powers that be intended it or not, the stifling-of-discussion thing is INFURIATING. When people are angry about an injustice, with good reason, is a proper response really to come back with, “But SPOILERS!” to shout them down???? One of these things is not like the other.

  5. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve read several harsh reviews about the film. I was surprised to learn that this is supposed to be a remake of The Wrath of Khan, but I was not so surprised to learn that the character Khan was played by a white actor I hardly heard of.

    Here’s the thing that’s racking my brain forever. J.J. Abrams admitted that he’s not a Trek fan. He doesn’t like it. So, why on Earth was he chosen to direct the modern reboots, aside from the obvious motivation for money, or did he take up the offer himself? Is this just a case of “who you know”? It certainly looks like it. Then again, I don’t know how it operates in Hollywood when it comes to who gets the opportunity to direct what.

    As a side note Ricardo Montalban was the one true Khan, and I have a feeling if I watch Into Darkness, I would be extremely disappointed on several levels.

    • J.J. Abrams doesn’t like Star Trek???

      But then . . . wha . . . why . . . ?

      Do you remember where you saw that, by any chance? Oh geez, it makes me so sad . . . it actually explains why there were some puzzling moments when it didn’t seem to me like they were handling classic Trek with love (making Christine Chapel the butt of a joke about Kirk’s sex life, for instance). It also explains why some aspects (again, Kirk’s womanizing, for one) feel so much like caricature instead of what TOS was *actually* like . . .

      • I don’t remember where exactly, but I am positive it was mentioned in an article somewhere. Plus, he has his sights set on Star Wars next.

          • Wow. Thanks for the links, Brothawolf. You know, after the first movie I might’ve agreed with him that not being a diehard Trekker gave him a bit of an advantage, but not after this one, because he seems to have completely missed what ST was *about* in favor of pretty explosions. And in particular what WoK was about. (Plus, not even watching all the movies? That just feels lazy.)

            Inclusion in ST isn’t the only thing he and the powers that be fell down on, but it’s an *important* one. In so many ways, ST was *about* inclusion — of women, of POC — yeah, they got a lot of things wrong, and there’s a lot to critique in old TOS, but they REALLY tried, and they took a lot of risks in casting and storylines to do it at a time when it would have been a lot easier to keep their heads down. Inclusion is an integral part of TOS for me. Maybe Abrams thinks “we’re past that” or something ::rolls eyes:: and that’s why he’s regressing to doing worse than a 60’s show on those fronts.

  6. They specifically used his whiteness to hide the fact he was Khan. There was much speculation that he was the doctor who created Khan or something similar. Especially since in the trailer he was seen helping a token family of colour with their child. I think they made him white or justified his whiteness as a way of hiding the plot. Pretty awful really.

    A storyline of him being the geneticist and unleashing the actual Khan for a sequel/further film would have been pretty awesome. Rather than the crap we got.

    • Oh, geez. I wasn’t following the pre-release publicity, so I didn’t realize that. How awful.

      I agree, telling a different story with Benedict Cumberbatch as a different antagonist could have been amazing. Why, Abrams, why!!

  7. Nothing really to add here except this recent link from the Hathor Legacy about all the fuss.

    It’s a history of Khan, covering everything from the cultural context the original Star Trek debuted in, why Khan almost had to be an Indian if he was going to be a MoC character on 1960’s TV, and the interesting implications his name reveals about the (fictional) times he was born into (assuming “Khan” is his actual first name and not the title he held while ruling over the Mideast and Asia).

    The article also counters almost all the arguments supporting Khan’s whitewashing in the new movie (are there seriously people saying that the first draft of the Space Seed episode – where the character that eventually became the super-Indian Khan started out as a Nordic super-character, complete with a Nordic name and origin and everything – should superceed what finally made it to the screen? If so, then >.<

    Long read, but worth it.

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