Casting White Actors in ‘Annihilation’ Is Missing the Point of the Story

The book centers on women of color, and that’s no accident

The whitewashing controversy surrounding the film Annihilation, based on the eponymous novel by Jeff VanderMeer, has been a particularly thorny one to parse out. The two organizations that fired the first shots, Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television, accused English director Alex Garland of erasing the Asian and Native American identities of two of the main characters by filling the roles with two white actresses, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Both Portman and Leigh denied having prior knowledge that the roles were whitewashed. Garland, too, has pled ignorance, saying he based his script solely off the first book of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, in which the characters’ races remain unspecified.

In the novel Annihilation, the author makes a stylistic choice to keep all of the characters’ identities deliberately vague. By omitting information such as names, physical appearances, and backstories hinting at any cultural or ethnic backgrounds of the characters, the narrator — known to the reader simply as the “biologist” — attempts to shed extraneous prejudices that may encumber the mission of what we’re told is the twelfth expedition into a mysterious landscape. She explains: “We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and ‘anything personal should be left behind.’ Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.” Stripped of these footholds, the reader becomes a worldmaker of sorts, instinctively filling in the gaps, not unlike the ever-proliferating organisms discovered in the seemingly alien ecosystem that the expedition has been tasked with exploring.

It’s not until the sequel Authority that VanderMeer offers concrete identifiers, including race, with regard to the characters. He describes the biologist as possessing “high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.” Later, he colors in the personal history of the character previously referred to as the psychologist with the mention of “her Native American mother, her white father.” These are the characters being played by Portman and Leigh, respectively. Garland wrote the script before Authority was published, so it’s likely that his claim — that the whitewashing was unintentional because he had no idea of the characters’ races — is accurate.

But why, when faced with two racially ambiguous characters, did Garland imagine them as white? The director clearly appreciates the symbolic value of including women of color in his film, as demonstrated by his casting of black actress Tessa Thompson and Puerto Rican American actress Gina Rodriguez to play the other members of the expedition team. But an overwhelmingly white supremacist culture means that whiteness is often the presumed default, and at the end of the day he elected to have the protagonist’s role, which is responsible for carrying the emotional weight of the story, go to a white woman. The casting serves to reinforce a racial hierarchy when leading parts are awarded to white actors and supporting roles to black and brown actors. And I’d argue that it also ignores and negates some of the most interesting aspects of Annihilation — that, in short, the narrative is impoverished if the reader, or in this case the director, lets the white default get in the way.

The narrative is impoverished if the reader, or in this case the director, lets the white default get in the way.

To VanderMeer’s credit, his work appears to be conscious of the need to de-center the largely white, male gaze that preoccupies science fiction storytelling. He underscores this point, challenging normalized perspectives, when he writes from the point of view of the biologist in Annihilation: “I knew from experience how hopeless this pursuit, this attempt to weed out bias, was. Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective — even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.” We learn that only men participated in a previously unsuccessful expedition, so the novel’s investment in following an exclusively female team is no accident. The racial background of its characters may not be a coincidence, either. Once races are explicitly established, it becomes clear that no primary character in the Southern Reach trilogy is identified solely as white.

There’s a strong argument to be made that VanderMeer’s story of exploring an otherworldly landscape within our mundane world is best understood as the experience, not only of women, but of women of color. Bringing personal context to my reading of Annihilation helped enrich my connection to the biologist, who sees herself as “an outsider.” Sure, there are other surface-level explanations for her outsider status that do not hinge on her racial identity, namely those related to her introversion, as well as her scientific responsibility as an observer. But a line about her rocky relationship with her husband who resented her guardedness, in which she says he “wanted me to be assimilated,” reverberates with additional meaning when one considers the connotations to a person of color.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ Is a Masterpiece of Racial Metaphor

The expedition’s unwelcome presence in a psychologically damaging, potentially toxic, and ultimately violent environment easily stands in as a metaphor for perpetual otherness. In another passage, the biologist becomes an observer of herself in Area X: “I would stand out to whoever or whatever watched from that vantage as something unnatural in that landscape, something that was foreign. Perhaps even a threat.” Whether or not VanderMeer intended it to, the language he uses alludes to the racist metaphor of Yellow Peril and America’s history of xenophobia toward Asian immigrants. Thus, those words feel especially poignant when the reader imagines them being written by someone of Asian descent. Her racial identity would have certainly added another layer to the already complex and nuanced character, and it would have been meaningful to see that portrayed on screen.

The film also erases the Native American background of the psychologist, who wields a position of power as the group’s leader, and whose lifelong relationship with the geographic space is a significant motivating factor. Throughout the series, VanderMeer employs the language of colonization to discuss Area X, which pertains to the fixation on the ever-expanding border as well. This framing of the boundary between civilization and wilderness harkens back to the country’s past genocide of Native Americans and stealing of tribal lands under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. And it’s precisely this historical lens that allows the reader to fully comprehend the greater implications of the ecological crisis occurring in the Southern Reach.

VanderMeer employs the language of colonization to discuss Area X. This framing of the boundary between civilization and wilderness harkens back to the country’s past genocide of Native Americans.

While Annihilation may have left room for interpretation, Authority undisputedly cements the racialized identities of the characters as canon — and as io9 points out, Garland had plenty of time to incorporate this new information into his screenplay: “Authority was released three months after the first novel, meaning that the book was more than available for Garland to read, if only to better understand the story he was taking on.” Furthermore, the story’s setting in a plausible near-future supports the rationale for the entire expedition to be comprised entirely of people of color since minorities are expected to be the majority by 2044. Some of the best contemporary fiction to depict dystopian futures recognizes America’s changing demographics and reflect this diversity on the page, such as On Such A Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. VanderMeer’s trilogy recognizes this reality, too. It is Garland’s vision that’s limited.

While the director may garner praise for his cinematic capabilities showcased in Annihilation, his inability to represent non-white-centered stories on screen is nothing short of a failure of imagination. Ultimately, the loss of Asian American and Indigenous characters negatively impacts not only those communities yearning for representational justice but also the story itself.

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