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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

because no one would believe it wasn’t a white man saving the world

So, you know that Extraordinary Measures movie, in which Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford develop a drug to rescue little kids suffering from a terrible disease from dying way, way too young? Well, it turns out that while Fraser as biotech exec John Crowley isn’t too bad a choice as casting goes, Ford as “Dr. Robert Stonehill” is complete racist bollocks.

In fact, the two scientists most responsible for creating the treatment in real life — a process the film alleges to depict — are Duke University researchers Yuan-Tsong Chen, MD, PhD, a Taiwanese man, and Priya Kishnani, MB BS, an Indian woman.
Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs explains in the press notes for the film:

There were many people who helped John [Crowley] along the way, from scientists to businessmen. And there were a number of doctors for whom John raised money. We composited all of these people into one character — Dr. Robert Stonehill.

Of course when fictionalizing reality, some winnowing down of events and characters is necessary. But there’s no reason — none at all — why the fictional composite doctor couldn’t have been Dr. Sanjay Kapoor or Dr. Yu Lin or Dr. Geeta Chopra or Dr. Ting Wu. And shocking as this notion is, people with those names could even be American-born: “Robert Stonehill” is the descendent of people who immigrated to the U.S. at some point in the past, too.

As RaceBending.com notes:

There is no one individual to point to here as an “instigator” of this whitewashing; but it is a reminder that Asians and Asian Americans are not permitted to portray themselves, much less others.

Actually, there is someone we can blame: Harrison Ford. He’s not merely an actor for hire in Extraordinary Measures: he’s one of the producers, one of the major creative forces behind getting the film made in the first place.

This has been your WTF Thought for the Day.

(Thanks to readers LaSargenta and Bluejay for their comments highlighting this whitewashing.)



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  • Ellen

    You sat in the theater and watched “Avatar” along with everyone else, and this comes as a surprise to you about white men being required to save the world? :-)

  • Cyndy

    That’s -again- depressing but not surprising news.

  • Paul

    Ah, but Jake rejected his white man ways for being a blue feline alien to save the world. While remembering them enough to throw hand granades instead of spears.

  • LaSargenta

    …but Jake rejected his white man ways …

    A la Dances with 9 Foot Tall Blue Cats?

    lol

  • CB

    Dances with Thundersmurfs

  • LaSargenta

    On the other hand, I’m sorta thinking that there ought to be categories. The fabulous example of Extraordinary Measures is in the We-Took-A-True-Story-And-Just-Negated-Everyone’s-Real-Roles-And-Butchered-The-Hell-Out-Of-Something-That-Only-Takes-A-Modicum-Of-Internet-Research-To-Poke-Holes-In-Our-Whiteness Category.

    This is different from the We-Can-Do-Anything-Because-This-Is-A-Whole-New-World-But-The-Hero-Is-Still-White Category.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, there’s a bit of a difference between creating a fictional story that mirrors one’s biases and preconceptions, and taking a real story that really happened to real people and deliberately altering significant details to better serve a perceived purpose.

    In the former instance, it’s entirely possible that subconscious impulses are at work, and even the most enlightened of us can sometimes have trouble overcoming our cultural programming. (That may not be the case with *Avatar,* but it’s not inconceivable that it is.) In the latter instance, it’s blatantly a matter of saying, “Well, two brown people, one of whom is female, are at the center of this story, but that just feels wrong, and so we must change it.” It’s the difference between a crime of omission and one of commission.

  • Holy crap! Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen is my uncle! I mean, he’s my aunt’s husband, but still, he’s my uncle! The father of my cousins! I knew he was acclaimed, but I didn’t know this movie is supposed to be about research he was a major part of? BASTARDS!!! That’s my uncle, dammit!

  • James Van Fleet

    It’s worth noting that this film was one of a few projects Harrison Ford had in development, and, as is often the case with stars as producers or directors, they’re much more likely to receive funding if they play a prominent role. So the composite character is white not because they wanted a white person to play it. The character is white because Harrison Ford is white. After that, it makes sense to name the main character’s name to Robert Stonehill.

    To wit, the racism is incidental, probably not intentional.

  • @CB LOL at Dances with Thundersmurfs. B)

    (Much funnier than my first thought, which was John Carter of Pandora.)

  • CB

    Are you sure, LVJeff?

    Are you sure your uncle isn’t actually a square-jawed all-American white guy with a tough-sounding name like Stonehill?

    That sounds much more plausible. Or would you have me believe that a nice white guy with the all-American name Harrison Ford could be full of shit? Do you hate America?

    *barf*

    BTW, it’s a lot easier to take the “hero is a white guy” idea when part of the point is that the hero has to get over his own culture/race being superior. Not that this doesn’t mean “the hero must be white” wasn’t at play at least subconsciously. It’s just easier to take.

  • MaryAnn

    To wit, the racism is incidental, probably not intentional.

    George Clooney faced this same issue with *Good Night and Good Luck.* So he gave himself a small role in the film, not a starring role. And he made it on a smaller budget than he might have, to boot. But he got it made.

    The movie could have been structured with a role for Ford that did not whitewash reality. But he and his fellow producers chose not to do that. I’d call that intentional.

  • CB

    The character is white because Harrison Ford is white. After that, it makes sense to name the main character’s name to Robert Stonehill.

    Is there some reason Ford couldn’t have been the father of the sick kids? Isn’t that prominent enough? I bet he’d be better than Encino Man at it — Ford can do a mean “I’m emotionally distraught but putting on a tough front” face.

    Then get an asian actor to be the scientist.

    What’s wrong with that?

  • Bluejay

    BASTARDS!!! That’s my uncle, dammit!

    LVJeff: I’ll be interested to see how you review this movie on your site. :-)

    George Clooney faced this same issue with *Good Night and Good Luck.* So he gave himself a small role in the film, not a starring role.

    I don’t get it… Was there a prominent Asian character in Good Night and Good Luck that Clooney didn’t want to play?

  • Bluejay

    Also: I think the “white men” in the “white men saving the world” idea should really be “white-men-and-occasionally-Will-Smith-or-Denzel-Washington-but-that’s-about-it.”

    I wonder sometimes what kind of concerns would have arisen if they had cast Will Smith as the lead in Avatar instead. Maybe the focus would be on imperialism as opposed to race per se?

  • Victor Plenty

    Bluejay, better watch out. You may well have stumbled across the super top secret crossover sequel, MIB III: Men In Blue.

  • LVJeff: I’ll be interested to see how you review this movie on your site. :-)

    You know, initially I had no interest in seeing this movie, but now I may have to just out of familial duty! Haha. Unfortunately, though, I may have to wait for DVD release.

    I don’t what’s more potentially disappointing, though — that Asian doctors are being composited into Harrison Ford, or that their story has been made into what looks to be a sucky movie.

  • Bluejay

    …Asian doctors are being composited into Harrison Ford…

    Heh–I just got a vision of a Godzilla-type scene: Asian doctors in the streets, running in fear! Giant Harrison Ford stomping over buildings, his giant chin-scar quivering with his maniacal laughter! Every so often he scoops up a screaming Asian doctor, and swallows him whole! And Harrison Ford gets BIGGER!!!

    Run! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!

  • LaSargenta

    LVJeff, I think you should get some kind of Serendipitous Internet award. Why wait for the DVD release though? Why not contact Mr. Ford’s production group and demand a free reviewer’s copy? You might be owed that based on “familial duty”.

  • LaSargenta

    *…as Buffy Sainte-Marie sings Native North American Child in the background…

    You know, it occured to me that we have here a great slogan for the Ford Production Company:

    Any Color As Long As It’s White!

  • Paul

    What about “The Magnificent Seven Samurai But With Guns”?

    Or “The Hidden Death Star”?

  • CB

    Not quite the same thing, Paul. That’s just ripping off ideas. If you remake the Seven Samurai as a Western, it makes sense that your cowboy gunslingers are going to be white guys.

    On the other hand, if you told the “true story” of Oda Nobunga unifying Japan, but made Nobunga a white guy named Jim Smith, that would be retarded and racist.

    Or you were telling the “true story” of a scientist curing a disease in modern America, where there are tons of non-white scientists, including the one in question, that would be retarded and racist.

  • bats :[

    I worked for a Taiwanese professor in Nutrition when I was in college, so this news really pisses me off. Dr. Peng (and his wife, also Dr. Peng and a fine researcher)was great boss and dedicated to his work.
    This is another film I don’t need to see.

  • But everyone who has ever watched E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy knows that people of Asian descent can’t play doctors. At least not in anything any normal American would want to watch. ;-)

    That would be like arguing that the real-life girlfriend of the lead character in A Brilliant Mind is Hispanic. And there’s no way any character played by Jennifer Connelly could be Hispanic…

  • Matthew

    Not quite the same thing, Paul. That’s just ripping off ideas. If you remake the Seven Samurai as a Western, it makes sense that your cowboy gunslingers are going to be white guys.

    And, conversely, if you remake Macbeth as Throne of Blood you shouldn’t feel obliged to make your lead character Scottish.

  • LaSargenta

    Hey, and if you remake real life, I think you are obliged NOT to claim it is a real story if you totally change all the characters into one single grumpy old white guy who hates to work in a team and who listens to KROQ.

  • If you remake the Seven Samurai as a Western, it makes sense that your cowboy gunslingers are going to be white guys.

    Because, of course, all cowboy gunslingers in the American West were white guys…

    * Tonio Kruger strolls off to read the life-story of Elfego Baca for the umpteenth time. *

  • LaSargenta

    Lions one, christians nothing.

    This round to Tonio.

    :-)

  • CB

    Who said “all”?

  • CB

    If Magnificent Seven was the story of Elfego Baca, that would be an excellent point.

  • Paul

    But the Magnificent Seven is about White Guys saving the world, a very little part of it, a Mexican part.

  • Paul

    Of course, today we’d sell the bad guys more guns.

  • Jeff

    I find all these comments about the movie interesting, it’s obvious that most people here A) Haven’t seen the movie, and B) Didn’t do a simple Google search to see how well the movie lined up with the facts.

    Harrison Ford’s character is based on William Canfield, who is the person that John Crowley went into business with. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Canfield) His name is fictionalized, and the names of the research companies are fictionalized, but only slightly.

    Their company was subsequently bought by a bigger company, as shown in the movie, and their initial treatment for the disease was NOT the one picked for the first trials – as also shown in the movie.

    If you’re going to play the race card, play it at the right time! Sheesh.

    Also, and I think this is equally important – the science and business, as depicted in the movie, are actually close to the truth, with little exaggeration. And there is not one CGI-enhanced explosion.

  • Misty

    Jeff accidentally included a closing parenthesis in his Wikipedia link. Just hit the link anyway and then type William Canfield in the search box. Thanks, Jeff, for the additional information.

    I have seen the movie, which did take liberty with many other facts, so for someone who hasn’t read The Cure some confusion over Ford’s role is understandable.

  • Bluejay

    Jeff, I can see how that might be a reasonable justification for Ford’s casting.

    But in fairness, the press notes that MaryAnn quotes in her original post do not single out William Canfield as the main basis for Ford’s character; Stonehill is described as a composite. While some commenters here have not seen the movie (including me), both MaryAnn and Roger Ebert have seen it and read the press notes, and both think it’s a reasonable assumption that Stonehill was inspired partly by Dr. Chen (see Ebert’s review here). Ford himself, at least in the interviews I’ve read, makes no mention of Canfield at all, but describes his character as a composite. See, for instance, his comments in an interview with the A.V. Club:

    We had the true story of John Crowley, and we had the opportunity to create a character to partner with Crowley in his scientific endeavor to create a therapy for his kids. We took the contributions of a number of different scientists and researchers and folded them into one character.

    Interestingly, people who are close to William Canfield–and possibly Canfield himself–are also offended that the movie failed to acknowledge him. Ford’s character seems to have done an injustice to ALL the scientists that inspired him!

  • Bluejay

    Meant to add this after the Ford quote:

    So if we take the filmmakers at their word that Stonehill is a true composite of several different people–white and nonwhite–then the issue of why the fictional composite seems to be white by default is a legitimate one to raise.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Ford’s character seems to have done an injustice to ALL the scientists that inspired him!

    That’s what happens when you start making composite characters. Some individual’s contributions become exaggerated, others’ become marginalized. In a sense, combining several people into a single, fictional composite is about the fairest thing a screenwriter can do.

    the issue of why the fictional composite seems to be white by default is a legitimate one to raise.

    Also taking the filmmakers at their word, the answer would be: because Harrison Ford is white.

    The obvious follow-up is: why does the character have to be played by Harrison Ford?

    There are a number of reasons why that might be true. I think the most likely is this: Ford is still, though decreasingly, a box office draw. His presence in the film, in a major role, may be what ultimately got the financial backing in place to make the film. Put simply, no Ford, no flick.

    There seem to be many, eve on this comment thread, who do not accept that as a legitimate reason. I suppose that’s their prerogative. Though their acceptance has little effect on the realities inherent in getting films made.

  • Bluejay

    Put simply, no Ford, no flick.

    Or at least, no conventional Hollywood flick with Ford as star and producer. There are other ways a story like this could get told on film, by other people; it could go the indie (Indy? :-) ) route, for instance. But sure, with Ford’s involvement, maybe this was the inevitable result.

    There seem to be many, eve on this comment thread, who do not accept that as a legitimate reason. I suppose that’s their prerogative. Though their acceptance has little effect on the realities inherent in getting films made.

    Yeah, but it’s fun to vent. ;-)

    Really, though, I think of it as an effort at consciousness-raising. Ford isn’t an evil bigot, at least to my knowledge. The issue of whitewashing simply isn’t on his radar, nor is it on the radar of most people in general. With enough awareness, maybe in the future filmmakers will be more motivated to find creative solutions that avoid these kinds of problems.

    “The realities inherent in getting films made” aren’t set in stone; they’re the result of prevailing attitudes among people who make and market movies–and among viewers as well. But attitudes can be changed, and the “realities” with them. “That’s how things are done” can also be used to excuse, say, the glut of movies geared toward men and teenage boys, and the lack of female directors. That doesn’t stop MaryAnn from calling attention to those issues. How things are doesn’t mean we can’t say how we think things ought to be.

    And Hollywood conventional wisdom is sometimes proven wrong, by people willing to take a risk.

  • CB

    Put simply, no Ford, no flick.

    Then get rid of Brandon Fraser and make Ford the father! This isn’t exactly rocket science.

    Or is it “no Ford as a rogue scientist, no flick”? I have a hard time keeping up with the specific requirements of Hollywood these days.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    This isn’t exactly rocket science

    Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha. *badoomching* But, hey, if you wanna cast 60-something Harrison Ford as the father of “young children”, go right ahead.

    Look, everything Bluejay said is true. Maryann said

    But there’s no reason — none at all — why the fictional composite doctor couldn’t have been Dr. Sanjay Kapoor or Dr. Yu Lin or Dr. Geeta Chopra or Dr. Ting Wu.

    [emphasis hers]

    I’m tossing out a plausible scenario in which that statement might not be true. The end result still sucks just as much, the overall point of this exercise is still there.

  • Bluejay

    But, hey, if you wanna cast 60-something Harrison Ford as the father of “young children”, go right ahead.

    Why not? In real life, he is.

    Okay, his little boy is adopted, so maybe it’s cheating. :-D

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