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Star of Alita: Battle Angel Responds to Whitewashing Controversy and Representation of Women of Color

Keean Johnson (left) and Rosa Salazar (center) in Twentieth Century Fox’s Alita: Battle Angel. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

By Erin Wen Ai Chew

Rosa Salazar plays the lead character Alita in the film Alita: Battle Angel, and what is important to note here is that she is a young Latino/Latinx American woman (woman of color (WOC)), playing a hero in a sci-fi blockbuster film. Now, some of you may read this article and ask, how is a Latino/Latinx American woman playing a lead role relevant in advocating for Asian/Asian American representation in Hollywood?

Well, as I stated in my review for the film in my previous piece, the advocacy around Asian/Asian American representation needs to be fought on a united people of color (POC) platform, and not just an Asian/Asian American platform. It is wrong to dismiss the significance of Salazar playing the lead role as whitewashing because as a Latino American woman, she is not considered White, and as a woman of color, she has contributed to the progress for change in cultural representation and visibility in Hollywood.

Of course characters such as Dr Dyson Ido (played by Christoph Waltz) and Cherin (played by Jennifer Connelly), are missed opportunities to cast Japanese/Asian/Asian American actors, but unlike the ScarJo saga in Ghost in the Shell, Alita: Battle Angel has not whitewashed its leading role.

In my interview with Rosa Salazar, we discussed this controversy as well as talk about the significance of the character Alita, being a badass young WOC heroine in the film. We also compared the similarities in the Asian/Asian American and Latinx/Latinx American struggles for better representation and advocacy in Hollywood. Salazar’s experience growing up as a Latinx American woman can be mirrored to the experiences of growing up Asian/Asian American and being treated constantly as a perpetual foreigner.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

SALAZAR: The significance of Alita speaks for itself. I am a woman of color and the sole lead of a major sci-fi movie. Most people cannot say that. Interestingly, Latinos in the US are one of the biggest group of moviegoers, but we are around 20% playing lead roles in this industry. I am not knowledgeable on the Asian/Asian American struggle, but from what I read and speaking to Asian American friends I know within the industry, our lived experiences of not being adequately represented and visible are very similar and I think that also makes Alita’s character even more significant. As a Latinx woman I can say that playing a lead heroine role is a huge thing and furthermore, it tells young Latino/Latino American women and other women of color that acting is a viable career choice.

I think what makes Alita even more important as a symbol is that she is not a “super hero”. She was not born with super power capabilities and really she is just a regular girl like you and I. All her strength comes from self-empowerment and her individuality – that is what makes her so relatable. Also as a character, she is not the stereotype that we people of color have grown up seeing in Hollywood films – a white person. It is my hope that playing Alita can encourage young Latino/Latinx Americans and Asian/Asian Americans and all POC to see that we can be represented and we can be represented in a positive light.

I found the portrayal of Alita as a young girl/woman unconvincing. On one hand, she is this badass, elite warrior with expert martial arts skills. On the other hand she is extremely vulnerable and willing to give it up all for her love for a boy. I asked why the writers chose to portray Alita in such extreme and conflicting ways.

SALAZAR: Alita is not even at both extremes. She is ALL extremes. She IS everything. She is tough, confident but vulnerable. She is really a dynamic female heroine and that is why I loved playing her. That is also how Yukito Kishiro made her character in the Manga. Alita is extremely multi-dimensional and I was so happy to play her and find a character to satisfy all my needs. If you think about it, she is no different from any woman, particularly women of color. Our lived experiences make us tough spiritually, but what adds to this toughness is our vulnerabilities and our empathy. It is the experiences and the environment we live in which makes us this way, and I think that is why Alita is all of us.

Alita: Battle Angel
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Finally, we touched on the relationships in the film, which was extremely complex, and multi layered. I was most interested in exploring the relationship Alita had with Dr. Dyson Ido who essentially bought Alita back to life. Was that a relationship the basic father – daughter type relationship or did it go deeper.

SALAZAR: Here is the thing. Dr. Ido reconstitutes Alita and brings her back to the planet without her consent. If you think about it, that is how all of us came into this world. None of us asked to be here – it was our parents who decided to bring us to the world. Off the bat, you already have a father-daughter relationship between Alita and Ido. And if you watch the film you would see her rebellious daughter nature – just like how all of us or most of us were. The first body Ido attached Alita to was Alita as a teenage girl and that represented essentially her teenage years. As you saw, Alita overstepped lines and broke boundaries with Ido, is that not the definition of a father-daughter relationship?

When Alita reaches adulthood ( with the attachment of the second body), you can see how she became more protective of Ido and how he loosened the reins to give her more independence albeit reluctantly. This again is the direct translation of our own fathers letting us go into the world as independent women, despite their concerns. For me, this relationship between Alita and Ido was one of the most important because it was a pure relationship and one, which will be preserved in time.

Overall, the interview and our discussions over representation, relationships and the importance of her playing Alita progressed naturally and I could sense how passionate Salazar is about these issues on a personal level.

Where Alita could have been played well by a Japanese/Asian/Asian American actor, I do not fault the casting decision to have Salazar play the character, because only a woman of color could bring out the true essence and significance of Alita which a White actor could never do.

As I have previously stated, the film could have done better with casting more Japanese/Asian/Asian American actors, but it is very different from being a “whitewashed” film. The entire movie was full of culturally diverse supporting, minor and extra actors and that to me makes it not just impressive but also shows how diverse and cosmopolitan this industry is becoming. There really is no excuse for film and TV executives to say that they could not find culturally diverse talent because as Alita: Battle Angel shows the talent pool is infiniteness.

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