The 'Death Note' Conflict: When The Marginalized Put The Marginalized Out Of Work
What happens when a black person, a marginalized representation in Hollywood, takes on a role that could and arguably should have gone to an Asian person, another marginalized representation in Hollywood?
Whitewashing in regards to Asian cinema has been prevalent both this year and the year before.
Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell on the big screen; and Finn Jones in Iron Fist on the small screen. These films and television series centered around Asian narratives should have Asian leads and yet, they don’t.
Netflix’s forthcoming Death Note is already suffering a similar fate to the aforementioned films and TV series. A live-action adaptation of an anime series in which a Japanese character called Light, discovers a notebook that grants him the ability to kill someone by writing their name in it, the show has already received controversy for its casting of Nat Wolff as Light.
A white man, Wolff’s casting has outraged many fans of the series, who’ve accused the show of whitewashing a character that should’ve gone to an Asian-American and, more importantly, a Japanese-American actor. However, two Asian actors will be portraying secondary characters: Paul Nakauchi (Watari) and Masi Oka (who is Japanese-American).
However, there is one particular casting that, in comparison to the controversy surrounding Wolff, has been received without objection (for the most part) — Lakeith Stanfield as L.
A black man, Stanfield taking on the live-action portrayal of an anime character is unprecedented. Literally, in the history of U.S. live-action anime adaptations, he is the first black person to take on something of a leading role (Tony Randel‘s 1985 Fist of the North Star film found Melvin Van Peebles as a secondary character named Asher, while Robert Rodriguez‘s forthcoming Alita: Battle Angel adaptation will feature Mahershala Ali as a secondary character named Vector).
Without L there would be no Death Note. The series is compelling as it is because Light and L are mirror images of one another: young adults with an intelligence and sense of deduction that comes to a climactic head throughout the series (without spoiling too much: Light uses the Death Note to kill people he believes should not be living — primarily criminals — but inevitably faces opposition against people against his vigilantism — his biggest threat being L).
This is why Stanfield portraying L is a big deal. The casting is fitting: both his portrayal of Darius in Atlanta and Andre / Logan in Get Out is indicative of his ability to play eccentric characters.
Granted, L has been described as multi-racial by creator Tsugumi Ohba (“I think of him as a quarter Japanese, a quarter English, a quarter Russian, a quarter French or Italian, like that,” Ohba once said) but in the context of the series it is hard not to imagine him portrayed by a Japanese-American actor.
The argument against black people portraying white fictional characters from devout fans is that doing so doesn’t maintain the source material. When Michael B. Jordan took on the role of the Human Torch, fans of the Fantastic Four were outraged that a black man had taken on a role that always belonged to a white man.
“Fans often seem to believe that if a character is changed from white to black, they will no longer be able to identify with that superhero,” Aaron Kashtan, a Georgia Tech professor who teaches courses on transmedia storytelling, said to The Atlantic. As an example of “unconscious or overt racism,” Kashtan also wrote how the argument of staying true to something was not easily separable from racism, adding “Superhero comics were developed in the cultural context of ’60s America where it was just normal for all the characters to be white.”
Whiteness has been the dominant representation in America since its founding, so when marginalized people are given the opportunity to portray a fictional character often reserved for white people, it’s important because it presents something that they were once restricted from. That they too can be this person.
This is where the conflict presents itself. As a black man and fan of Death Note, I want to see Stanfield take on L because I’m confident he will do the role justice. When I saw this picture taken from the show I was so happy because it’s such a crucial L mannerism — crouched above a chair and the bottoms of the back of his feet slightly raised. That attention to detail means so much and is a testament to the fact that Stanfield respects the roles he takes on.
But I also want to see Stanfield as L because roles such as these are rarely if ever, offered to black actors. That is the beauty of adaptation — through reinterpretation viewers may find themselves getting reintroduced to a character so to speak, where the actor maintains what fans loved so much about the character while also making them their own in a refreshing and captivating way.
However, as happy as I am to see Stanfield’s portrayal of L, it is difficult to not wonder why a Japanese-American actor wasn’t chosen for either lead role. Sure, all other live-action adaptations have featured Japanese actors, but that was because each one was filmed in Japan. Netflix had the opportunity to offer a westernized retelling of Death Note and expand its fanbase (which it will still do), while also spotlighting new Japanese-American talent during a time in which Asian stories in America continue to get taken and whitewashed.
“I think the key to truly enjoying this series is not really to look at the Death Note series as a mirroring image of the original anime, but more so as its own version — a westernized, Americanized version with the roots of Death Note,” AkiDearest, a YouTube user that speaks on issues and topics related to anime, says in a video.
I’ll still be watching Death Note to see what the film does differently from its predecessors (and because of Stanfield) while hoping that the next live-action adaptation of an anime series will celebrate Asian-American actors.