How Mad Should I Be About the Whitewashing in Annihilation?

There’s so much to get mad about these days that it can be hard to know where to throw your outrage. On Twitter? To your senator? We’ve devised a handy rage calculator to help you determine the appropriate amount outrage to express on social media.

Get out your TI-89 outrage calculators, because it’s time to calibrate the proper amount emotion to expend on another instance Hollywood whitewashing. On the docket is Annihilation, a trippy, LSD-infused sci-fi film by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland starring Natalie Portman as a biologist exploring a top-secret zone called Area X. The movie is an adaptation a Jeff VanderMeer book the same title, the first part the Southern Reach Trilogy.

The film diverges from the books in several ways. In the books, Portman’s character is known first as “the biologist” and then goes by a nickname, “Ghost Bird”; in the movie, she goes by Lena. But the more significant departure for our purposes is that in the second book, Authority, VanderMeer describes her character as being Asian descent. (Portman is white). Furthermore, another character, known simply as “the psychologist” (and played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie), is described as half–Native American, half-white. (Ditto, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Garland and the actors have said that the whitewashing wasn’t intentional, and that they didn’t realize the characters weren’t written as white. But does this explanation hold up? Well, hold onto your angry hats, because we’re crossing into the Shimmer to find out.

All right, so is it fair to call this whitewashing, or is this an Iron Fist situation?
While many terms — whitewashing, white-savior complex, etc. — have gotten conflated over the past couple years, this is a clear-cut case whitewashing: The characters in the book are not white, but the actors who play them in the adaptation are. Here’s the relevant portion the text from Authority, the second book the trilogy, where another character known as John Rodriguez, a.k.a. Control, describes the biologist as follows:

Later in the same book, he says this about the psychologist:

While you could argue these descriptions fall into another common trope dystopia narratives — sometimes called “But Not Too Foreign” — where characters in sci-fi or futuristic situations are ten mixed race, it’s explicit that they are not written as white.

So what was writer-director Alex Garland’s explanation?
He says he simply didn’t know. He released a well-crafted statement that read:

Portman also said something similar during an edited on-camera interview with Yahoo! When asked the question, she said that it’s the first she’d heard the whitewashing allegations. She acknowledges that it sounds “problematic” and delivers a poised response: “We need more representation Asians on film, Hispanics on film, blacks on film, women and particularly women color, Native Americans — I mean, we just don’t have enough representation.”