Illustration by Ben Beechener
CW: discussions of racism
Author Leigh Bardugo had one main request when screenwriter Eric Heisserer took on the adaptation of Shadow and Bone for Netflix: “I want you to do this better than I did.” Based on the first book in Bardugo’s Grishaverse trilogy, Shadow and Bone follows young mapmaker Alina. She discovers her ability to summon sunlight, capable of blasting away tangible darkness that divides the kingdom of Bardugo’s fantasy world. Bardugo wanted to step away from the medieval England setting commonly seen in fantasy novels, and chose Imperial Russia as inspiration for her world, Ravka. But while the setting itself bypassed the usual conventions, she leaned on a narrow worldview to populate the saga. “I was echoing a lot of the fantasies I’d grown up with, which were very white, very straight sort of traditional Chosen One stories,” Bardugo tells Polygon.
A conscious effort to diversify the cast was a priority for the series. Both Heisserer and Bardugo felt that the most natural change for the television show was to make Alina half-Asian. In terms of the series’ worldbuilding lingo, this meant making her a native of Shu Han, a country that roughly corresponds to somewhere located in East Asia. After Netflix put out the casting call, Heisserer clarified on Twitter that they did not want to restrict the casting to a specific ethnicity and “would rather find the right talent who can inform the look of Shu Han vs the other way around.” In the books, Ravka is at war with Shu Han over border disputes. By making Alina part Shu, Bardugo says, “her journey as an outsider [became] even more poignant.” Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina, says that while Alina’s race isn’t the only important thing about her, the heritage shaped her character. It was something, she explains, she was able to pull from her own real-life experiences of being biracial. “[Alina] spent her whole life being told she looks like the enemy. She’s had to stand up for herself and grow this thick skin, but she’s also so vulnerable,” Li says. “And she’s suspicious of new people, and she’s soft-spoken because she doesn’t want anyone to feel that she’s aggressive. It was nice to be able to bring some of my own experiences.” This adaptation is an unprecedented step forward in Asian representation. Netflix’s Shadow and Bone has four prominent Asian characters in its ensemble, and all of them are breaking up the Asian monolith fallacy.
Often, Hollywood casts only one Asian actor per project. This places a disproportionate amount of pressure on the individual actor to make all Asians feel represented. Asia is the largest continent globally, with close to 50 countries and a wide array of languages, cultures, and histories. Netflix’s Shadow and Bone accurately shows how there is considerable diversity under the “Asian” label and offers representation with substance through its main protagonist, Alina Starkov, her endgame love interest, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), the skilled spy. Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and the powerful Squaller, Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta).
In recent years, colourblind casting – the idea of casting someone regardless of their ethnicity – has been in fashion. But colourblind casting almost always ascribes to the “see no colour” doctrine, which is a sentiment that can be filled with violence towards people of colour. To say that you don’t see colour implies that the only thing that sets a black or brown person apart from a white person is the colour of their skin. But a person’s ethnicity isn’t just a surface-level characteristic. To use colourblind casting and cast a Black actor, say, in a role written for a white character, and then not allow for a reflection of their lived experiences, is, at best, an embarrassment. Differentiating between perspectives, situations and backgrounds adds greater depth and understanding to a character. Diversifying deliberately, rather than accidentally, is vital if the TV industry wants to become truly inclusive, and this is important because only by being inclusive will it remain relevant and exciting. Characters need to be written authentically, with the experiences of their ethnicity – and their sexuality and financial background and more – woven into their narratives. Authentic writing means showing a breadth of expertise and lived realities. Inclusivity on the screen should necessitate inclusivity behind the scenes as well. To portray characters from various backgrounds and have them seem authentic requires a writing staff – and directors and producers and costume designers and makeup artists and hairstylists and so on and so on – who are also from a variety of backgrounds.
While critics and fans have praised Shadow and Bone’s diverse cast, the internet has recently uncovered a surprising, and offensive, casting choice. A Twitter user noticed that Nepal-born British actress Amita Suman’s stunt double is white. And not only is she white, but it also seems the production team put her in brownface and a brown bodysuit during her stunt scenes. The first photo shows Suman and her Hungarian stunt double, Vellai Krisztina, posing and smiling together, the latter with tan-looking skin. In another picture from the set, the two are getting ready for an aerial acrobatics scene, and you can see Krisztina’s white neck standing out in direct contrast to her much tanner body suit and face. Then, the Twitter poster added a professional headshot Krisztina shared on her Instagram, in which it is clear that she is, indeed, a white person with light blonde hair. Fans of the show expressed their shock and outrage at the photos, admonishing Netflix and the Shadow and Bone creators for not casting a person of colour as Suman’s stunt double. Jessie Mei Li also has a white stunt double, Hungarian performer Eva Harangozó. Are there no stunt actors of colour out there who could have been cast? As one fan wrote on Reddit, “Because the Suli is based off the Roma, and that there are plenty of Roma in Hungary, this is just awful.” Unfortunately, Hollywood has a history of whitewashing in stunts, and it’s so commonplace that it even has a name: “painting down.”
Netflix must be held accountable for its lack of diversity, as must the film industry as a whole, given the continued inequality in casting opportunities for people of colour. Whilst Shadow and Bone in many ways champions positive steps forwarding regarding diversity, gendered roles and representation, the recent scandal surrounding stunt doubles shows that issues of racism exist on many levels within the industry. Positive change cannot exist solely for those who appear on-screen; rather, true inclusivity comes from diversification in every element of production.