Why #StarringJohnCho is important

Image: John Cho as Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek film series. The role was initially played by George Takei, who has been vocal about Hollywood’s lack of diversity. 

[April Wilson | TV Director]

It has not been a great year for Hollywood in terms of racial diversity. Things did not start off well when the Academy of Motion Arts and the Sciences announced this year’s Oscar nominations in which all of the acting nominations were white actors. The internet did not take the news lying down and soon the hashtag #OscarSoWhite began trending.

It was this fact that led Jada Pinkett-Smith to call for a boycott of the Oscars over Twitter. She proclaimed that, “At the Oscars…people of color are always welcome to give out awards…even entertain. But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow. With much respect in the midst of deep disappointment.”



Many people speculated that Pinkett-Smith was also upset that her husband, Will Smith, had been snubbed for his role in Concussion. Smith also ended up not attending The Oscars due to the controversy, something he revealed in an interview with Good Morning America:

“No,” he said. “My wife’s not going. It would be awkward to show up with Charlize [Theron]… we’ve discussed it…. We’re part of this community. But at this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say this is OK.”

Smith, however, was not the only actor who was slighted at the 2016 Oscars nominations. Idris Elba was not nominated for Beasts of No Nation, nor was the cast of Straight Outta Compton, or Michael B. Jordan for Creed.

Caption: Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in ‘Beasts of No Nation’, a Netflix Original Film.
Caption: Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation, a Netflix Original Film.

Chris Rock, the comedian who hosted The Oscars this year also weighed in on the controversy. On his Twitter he called The Oscars, “The White BET Awards” when posting a trailer for the awards.

But he did not stop there. When hosting the awards, he did not hesitate to remind people about the controversy. In his opening monologue he welcomed the audience to the show, “Otherwise known as the white People’s Choice Awards”, adding, “You realise if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. You’d all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”

The Oscars, however, are not the only racial controversy that has taken place in Hollywood this year. Accusations of “whitewashing” were rife when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Kusangi in the Hollywood live-action remake of the classic anime The Ghost in the Shell. The controversy arose because the character Johansson will be playing is Japanese in the anime and as talented as Johansson is, she is not Japanese.

Caption: The first look of Scarlett Johansson in the remake of ‘The Ghost in the Shell’.
Caption: The first look of Scarlett Johansson in the remake of The Ghost in the Shell.

The Ghost in the Shell is not the only film that has been subject to criticism due to his casting. The biopic about Nina Simone’s life, Nina, was released this year and was subjected to a lot of backlash. The film originally was subjected to criticism in 2012 when Zoe Saldana was cast to play the role of Simone. This criticism occurred mainly because people protested that Saldana is noticeably lighter-skinned than Nina Simone. Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, in an interview with The New York Times, was critical of this decision. The article quotes her saying, “’My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.’”

On release, the film became subject to more criticism because, in the film, Saldana wears a prosthetic nose, a wig and makeup to darken her skin.

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina.

It is no surprise then that the internet decided to fight back against these casting decisions and the exclusion actors in Hollywood face if they are not white. So, faced with leading protagonists that showcased a lack of diversity, a movement was started. A movement that showed what it would look like if John Cho, famous for his role as Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek films and as Harold Lee in the Harold and Kumar films, was cast as the leading man. And so, the hashtag #StarringJohnCho was born! On the Twitter page for the movement,  #StarringJohnCho is described as, “a social movement that shows you what it would look like if today’s Hollywood blockbusters cast an Asian-American actor as their leading man”.

To achieve its aim, William Yu, the creator of the movement, photoshops John Cho into posters for mainstream Hollywood films, and the results are revealing about Hollywood’s whitewashing culture. What is striking when you look at all the films that John Cho has been photoshopped into is the sheer amount of films that it is possible to photoshop him into, showcasing just how bad Hollywood’s diversity problem really is.

500 days of summer
Credit: William Yu @starringjohncho

As much as I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer, it would have been interesting to see what the film would have been like if John Cho had been cast instead.

And let’s face it, it would have been interesting to have seen an Asian-American actor cast as Captain America.

Credit: http://starringjohncho.com
Credit: William Yu @starringjohncho

Or even better yet, how cool would it have been to see some racial diversity added to the James Bond series, in the form of John Cho, as the legendary agent himself.


Credit: http://starringjohncho.com
Credit: William Yu @starringjohncho

The movement quickly spread and soon a new hashtag was born, inspired by #StarringJohnCho. This time, the focus was on Constance Wu, an actress famous for her role as Jessica Huang in the comedy series Fresh Off the Boat. Like the movement, it was inspired by the aim of  #StarringConstanceWu was to show what it would like if Constance Wu was the leading lady in a series of different mainstream Hollywood films.


Credit: http://www.starringconstancewu.com
Credit: @starconstancewu


Credit: http://www.starringconstancewu.com
Credit: @starconstancewu

Hopefully, Hollywood can learn from this controversy and start showcasing racial diversity. Until then, we will have to settle for photoshopping in diversity, hoping that one day that this will not be necessary.


Why #StarringJohnCho is important