Natalie Portman takes on 'Annihilation' whitewashing accusations

In the sci-fi film Annihilation, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh play an ex-military biologist and a government psychologist who are part of a top-secret mission to explore a zone where strange phenomena are occurring. Recently, the casting of Portman and Leigh has come under criticism because, in the sequel to the novel Annihilation, Portman and Leigh’s characters are identified as women of color. Specifically, Portman’s character is described as having “Asian heritage,” while Leigh’s character is half Native American. In an interview with the actresses, Yahoo Entertainment asked their opinions on the controversy — and discovered that neither of them knew about it. Both, however, immediately acknowledged that women of color are underrepresented in cinema. Watch the video above.

Well, that does sound problematic,” Portman told Yahoo, “but I’m hearing it here first. “

Leigh said: “It’s probably a valid criticism. I didn’t know that.”

While Hollywood has a long history of “whitewashing” — casting white actors in roles created for, or based on, people of color — the case of Annihilation is not so straightforward. The 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, on which the film is based, contains no physical descriptions of its characters; VanderMeer writes in a deliberately enigmatic style and doesn’t even give his lead characters names. (They’re referred to as “the biologist,” “the psychologist,” and so forth.) Those identifying details weren’t revealed until the sequel, Authority. But the film’s writer-director, Alex Garland, told Yahoo Entertainment that he based his screenplay on a galley of Annihilation, which he read prior to publication.

“I knew at that time there were supposed to be three books planned, but I didn’t know [anything] about the other two,” Garland said during an interview with Yahoo in December.

In fact, Garland deliberately refrained from learning anything about the sequels, because he wanted to take the story in his own direction. With VanderMeer’s blessing, he decided to make a deliberately unfaithful adaptation of the novel. “I took a really weird approach to the adaptation,” Garland told Yahoo. “I thought, I’m not going to re-read the book; I’m going to adapt it like a dream of the book.”

It should be acknowledged that Garland’s cast is more diverse than many; Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Benedict Wong, and Oscar Isaac all play major roles; and early critical response to the film has been enthusiastic. While the complaints against Annihilation might be based on a misunderstanding of Garland’s intent, Portman told Yahoo that the entire industry needs a wake-up call when it comes to casting.

“We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women and particularly women of color, Native Americans — I mean, we just don’t have enough representation,” said Portman. “And also these categories like ‘white’ and ‘nonwhite’ — they’re imagined classifications but have real-life consequences. … And I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.”

—Additional reporting by Jon San

Annihilation opens in theaters on Feb. 23. Watch the trailer:

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