Ed Skrein’s decision to leave ‘Hellboy’ shows that equality in Hollywood requires sacrifice

Actor Ed Skrein announced in a Twitter post Monday that he would no longer play Major Ben Daimio in Millennium Films’ upcoming reboot of the Hellboy film franchise. In the comic books, Daimio is Japanese-American. Skrein is a white Brit who would have trouble passing for anything else.

“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” Skrein wrote. “I feel it is important to honor and respect that. Therefore I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.”

Before the announcement, critics had denounced Skrein’s casting as yet another example of Hollywood “whitewashing” — the industry’s habit of hiring white actors to play roles originally conceived as nonwhite. Scarlett Johansson in this year’s live-action remake of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime is one example. Almost the entire cast of Netflix’s Death Note — another live-action film based on a Japanese anime — is another.

Yet where previous performers and filmmakers moved forward with their whitewashed visions despite the backlash, Skrein gave up his own chance at pay and prestige so that a nonwhite actor could get work. By doing so, he highlighted the rarely acknowledged reality of racial inequality in America: In order to diminish its influence, white people must actively sacrifice their advantages.

It’s hard to overstate how unique Skrein’s decision is, especially in a climate where whites often refuse to admit that racism favors them, let alone work to combat it. A survey published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2011 found that white Americans are more likely to think bias against white people is a bigger problem today than bias against black people. That study’s authors, Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers, wrote at the Washington Post in 2016 that “the changing — and increasingly less white — demographics of the United States may feel existentially threatening” to some.

Scalett Johansson attends the Korean Red Carpet Fan Event of the Paramount Pictures release ‘Ghost In The Shell’ at Lotte World Tower Mall on March 17 in Seoul.Woohae Cho/Getty Images

These “threatening” demographic changes have yet to be reflected onscreen, however. An annual study on Hollywood diversity recently published by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies found that, from 2011 to 2015, between 10.5% and 16.7% of the films examined starred a nonwhite performer in the lead role. Generally speaking, between 2013 and 2015, the share of theatrical films in which nonwhites made up more than 10% of the cast dropped — even as the nonwhite share of the U.S. population inched upward toward 40%.

Acting is a competitive field. In a country with more than 323 million residents, an estimated 22,120 work as actors for film and television, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Members of that coveted 0.0068% have as little incentive as any to pass on the rare work that comes their way (it’s worth noting that most of these actors also lack the wealth, recognition and job prospects that Skrein — who appeared in 2016’s Deadpool — has). To be white and accept roles conceived for nonwhite actors is not just tacitly encouraged by the cutthroat nature of the business, then — it demonstrates the very material benefits of whiteness in an already-competitive arena.

“It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity.” — Ed Skrein

And since the United States has conspired over the centuries to maintain a broad white supremacy across its political and cultural existence, it remains that ending inequality is a choice that must be made, first, on the individual level, and among those who wield power. Skrein’s decision won’t change industry practices on its own. But without white professionals making more sacrifices like the one Skrein made, change is probably a lost cause.

As for motive, we can take Skrein at his word, or debate ad nauseam how costly sticking with the project would have been for the actor’s brand. Audiences’ impatience with the lack of diversity in media is more vocal now than in years. Some might argue that the benefits of Skrein staying on board would’ve been far outweighed by the vitriol he’d get in return. Even the film’s producer’s cast their lot with the actor, endorsing his decision in a statement soon after he announced it.

This is either besides the point, or entirely the point. Skrein could be acting out of a real desire to see racial justice in film — or simply because today’s cultural discourse has rendered whitewashing less worth the trouble. Either way, the resulting opportunity that will presumably go to a Japanese-American actor is a step toward the desired endgame. And it indicates, if nothing else, the very tangible benefits even minor white sacrifices can yield.