In 2016, when it was announced that Netflix would be adapting Richard K Morgan’s sci-fi novel Altered Carbon with Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman starring as Takeshi Kovacs, a man of Japanese and Slovakian origin, the Twitterati sharpened their knives.
Following a year in which blockbusters such as Matt Damon’s The Great Wall and Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell were criticised for casting white actors in Asian roles, it appeared the tide had finally turned in August last year after Ed Skrein quit the Hellboy reboot after cries of “white-washing”. His character, in the comic books, was of Japanese-American descent.
But, the new Netflix dystopian series, still in its nascent stage, brought the issue back to the fore.
🆒🆒🆒 I thought the whole “Asian person reincarnated into white person’s body” trope in western Cyberpunk media was getting left in 2017 but I was wrong! 🙄 https://t.co/9pRpNbZb4N
Was the former House of Cards star at all worried that he would find himself in the firing line?
“No, not at all,” he says. “I think that is a little bit lazy. You haven’t dug into the whole story if that’s how you interpret it.”
The issue, as Kinnaman suggests, is much greyer than what has come before it. Altered Carbon is set in a distant future in which consciousness has been digitised and humans can transfer from body to body to continue life when their old body, or “sleeve”, has failed them.
The series picks up in the year 2384, a quarter millennium after the original Takeshi Kovacs has been killed. At the beginning of the pilot, he is re-awakened and placed inside a white man’s body. It follows the order of the novel to the letter.
“Whitewashing is a real thing that has been happening for a long time, and its quite disgraceful, in my opinion,” says Kinnaman. “But whitewashing is when you have an Asian character that gets played by a white person. Here, it’s an Asian character that gets put into a white body and that is the story; that’s how it is described in the book.”
Furthermore, the cast of the show is as diverse as any you’re likely to see on mainstream television, with a significant representation of non-white characters, including two previous iterations of Kinnaman’s character as played by Korean-American Will Yun Lee and Chinese-American Byron Mann.
“And, even to combat that – and it also played very well to the story – we have added a backstory of Kovacs [Lee] where you see him in his birth sleeve, and you also have another version of Kovacs [Mann] where he has gotten to chose his own sleeve. You can then see that when he gets to choose, he chooses a person that looks more like him when he was growing up: an Asian guy.”
While the hive-mind hasn’t turned against the series in the weeks leading up to its launch (2nd February), there are still some dissenting voices. An in-depth piece on the perceived whitewashing by io9 writer Beth Elderkin addressed the nuances of the issue, but ultimately expressed disappointment that the role’s main characteristics were being defined by a white man.
But Kinnaman remains defiant.
“It has been written about,” he says, “and some people… I’m like, ‘look at it’. When it’s such an important issue, you don’t wanna accuse something that isn’t that, because then you can taint the argument.”
Altered Carbon launches on Netflix on Friday 2nd February