Is the Assassin’s Creed film already starting out on the wrong foot with white-washing?

It was brought to my attention recently that there’s an Assassin’s Creed movie in the works, which got me a little more excited than I expected. The honest truth is I’ve played maybe two hours of the entire series (which I promise I’m hoping to change very soon). But it’s always intrigued me a ton; the whole idea of the Animus and past-lives, assassins, and the style and art of the game have totally drawn me in.

Even with little experience, I’m pretty stoked about the movie and will definitely be seeing it, especially considering Ubisoft’s allegedly firm stance on retaining creative control. Most of us gamers have been sorely let down by film adaptions of popular franchises, so it’s easy to be cynical on whether or not the film will be worth seeing. I’m hoping it will.

So here’s what I’m not too excited about: they announced the casting of Michael Fassbender apparently as a lead according to this article from  Variety. It’s specficially worded as:

“Michael Fassbender was our first choice” to play the franchise’s iconic hooded hero

That’s kind of a let-down, assuming they follow the games and that hero is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, a very Syrian kind of guy.  It’s ironic to make such a casting and then conclude with these sentiments:

By controlling more of the creative through UMP, Ubisoft hopes it doesn’t wind up with another “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,”

Funny, since one of the biggest critisims was that film’s casting of predominately white actors.

Michael Fassbender Assassins Creed Whitewash
“It’s not like we’re gonna see his face, right?”

I know the subject of white-washing and gender-equality in the video game industry and Hollywood at large is a touchy subject for a lot of people. It’s something that I actually ignored on a whole for many years, but as someone who’s still a gaming-industry hopeful, and a hispanic woman to boot, it’s become pretty important to my life in a lot of ways.

I’ll start by saying I think things are getting a lot better all around. Producers and developers are certainly recognizing the plight of under-represented groups both in terms of consumers and the characters they portray in their franchises. So I do give them props for making an effort to incite some change, albiet a small and slow one.

Assassin’s Creed has a very interesting element in that it spans over many eras and many locations, thus lending itself to some awesome cultural leanings we don’t see too often in games. Of our main assassins, we have Altaïr (fun as hell to say) who is Syrian; Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Italian noble; and Connor Kenway, the half Native American, half English lead for the upcoming ACIII whose birth name is Ratonhnhaké:ton (have fun with that one). *

That’s really one of the main things I love about this series. The fact that the nationalities of these guys is so diverse also seems pretty intentional, actually, especially considering Connor could have very well just been an American colonial.  It makes Desmond, the modern-day decendent of all of them, an ethnic mixing-pot which is realistic considering how common that is modern society.

But that’s also what makes it frustrating that they’d settle with a white actor at all, and especially if he winds up playing Altaïr. And it’s Ubisoft themselves making this choice; so that borders on almost surprising.

I don’t doubt the actor they chose is a good one. I don’t pay attention to Hollywood enough, honestly, so I couldn’t give my opinion either way (I did see Prometheus, and he was wonderfully creepy in it). But I do know there are many great actors of color who would do the role justice, as well, and it bothers me that they’ve seemed to settle on a token white dude for it.

I mean, I get it. Entertainment industries are afraid if you don’t cast a white man as the main character, nobody’s gonna want to see the movie. That is a real concern, but something that also really needs to change, and they can start by trying to have some faith that people will be willing to see a film, play a game, read a book if it’s good and not base everything on race. Tons of people play the AC games. Most of them are probably white. They also don’t seem bothered Altaïr is not.

Assassins Creed Whitewash Prince of Persia
No amount of sexiness or whiteness can save a bad movie. Just saying.

So here’s a thought; an independently produced film based on an already beloved franchise has a lot of potential to break that mold and still come out on top. Assassin’s Creed has a great story to tell, be it an adaptation of existing stories or adding new lore to the universe, and a lot of fans who will be dedicated to the film if it is done well. Instead of worrying about whether or not people are gonna turn up their nose if you have a brown guy play a brown guy, give consumers some credit. The golden rule is create good content, and people will see it. If Ubi’s really taking creative control, I have no doubt they’ll do their own franchise justice, so I don’t see why they should worry about catering to this mystical rule of lead roles.

Edit: A few additions
* 1) Lovely fellow blogger Verene brought up an important omission that I wasn’t aware of due to my limited knowlege of AC’s story. In addition to the fellas listed above,  the protagonist for the upcoming ACIII: Liberation is Aveline, who’s both female and of mixed heritage:  French-African. Which, again, feels like deliberate diversity.

2) Since I wrote this this morning, a few discussions cropped up between myself and my wonderful twitter network on the subject. It was pointed out  we don’t know for sure whether or not the film will be an adaptation of the existing games / lore or a stand-alone addition to the universe. Which is totally a valid point (made some edits to reflect this). Even so, I stand by my suspicions. This is a franchise that has a precedent for ethnic characters, and while not as bad as white-washing a specific persona, choosing a caucasion lead in this case seems unfitting, at least to me. Your milage may vary, though.

So what do you guys think? Is Assassin’s Creed risking the white-washing problem? Do you think the movie will follow the games at all? Who would you cast as Altaïr and/or Desmond? 

  • Nice read. Personally, I would love it if he played just Desmond, but that they emphasized the Desmond story for a bit more screen time. I have always found his part of the story interesting, but mostly a side-note in the games in terms of actual screen time. Yes, the games are leading into a more Desmond-focused plot area, but mostly it’s about 25 minutes of Desmond, and 15-45 hours of Assassin. 

    That way, they could have essentially two main actors playing Desmond and Altair respectively. Now, if they absolutely wanted to do Fassbender for both roles, it would at least be nice if they didn’t try to “middle-easternize” him at all, and instead did a brief little scene of him looking in a mirror (in the memory) and seeing “Altair’s” reflection (with a middle eastern actor) and having it explained that it’s his “Residual Self Image” a la The Matrix. 

    As for White-Washing in general… it’s a tough issue for me to comment on. Being a white male makes me pretty much the most over-catered-to demographic that there is. I personally don’t care what an actor’s race is in general, but I do feel weird seeing actors of different races than the depicted characters are supposed to be. It doesn’t really bug me THAT much, but I can see why it does bother others. What I feel though is that it’s equally weird both ways, and if people are okay with non-white-people playing white characters, then it should go both ways. Some examples would be Nick Fury (all newer Marvel movies, Samuel L Jackson), The Kingpin (Daredevil, Michael Clark Duncan), Heimdal (Thor, Idris Elba), Starbuck (BSG, Katee Sackhoff, though that’s gender not race) and others. I loved all of those actors’ portrayals of those characters, but it felt just as weird (to me) as watching Prince of Persia with a white guy.  

    I know some people will proclaim that “It’s different the other way around, because minorities are opressed”, but I’ve always hated those kinds of arguments. I want to treat people as people, I hate saying that it’s ok for one person to do something and another person cannot do something based on their race. Regardless, I really don’t want to speak on this too much more because it is a very contentious issue, and I really hope that I haven’t been offensive to anyone’s beliefs or views on the issue here. It was a very interesting read though.

    • KH

      I’m glad that you state your privilege up front but you’re also making a lot of false equivalencies. Let me try to break this down.

      If we’re just focusing on science fiction/comics, how many of the characters are white? It’d be much faster to just list off the minorities and say “the rest are white.” Same goes for the protagonists of video games. So when the main character of a game is of a race of particular interest and movie producers deliberately ignore that and make that character white, it’s uncomfortable and offensive.
      To you, it seems turning a fictional white person in a minority is disrespectful to the idea of the character. But turning a fictional person of color (which are already few and far between, comparably) white is not only disrespectful to the idea of character, but even worse, it tells minorities that they are not wanted or needed in the media, and that we have to be homogenized to appeal to an audience that somehow doesn’t include us. These two things are not the same.
      Also, please don’t make the colorblind argument. You, as a white man, can afford to be colorblind but as a person of color myself, I certainly can’t. I don’t get treated with a lot of respect, or colorblindness, and I won’t even go into the specific comments I get as a /female/ POC. By trying to conflate all of our experiences together, you deliberately ignore the oppression and difficulties minorities face trying to be equal with the ruling majority.

      Please read these: “Can a black man play a Nordic character? Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

    • izziebot

      Thanks a ton for the reply, Grei. I think it was very fair. 
      I guess it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be part of under-represented / oppressed demographics; and I would in no way think anything you said was insensitive.

      For instance; I was raised comfortably with a loving family and never wanted for anything; and while I can be sympathetic to people who have had to struggle with poverty, abuse, or neglect, I know I will never truly understand their suffering because I have never experienced that. 

      I always keep that in mind when talking about this stuff to others to also remain humble and fair. I am aware there are a lot of things that are unfair in my life simply because of who I am; a hispanic female. And although I’m a hard worker in my field (graphic design), and pretty much do the work of 3 people, I’m getting paid close to 20k less than my white-male counterparts. And it’s pretty frustrating to deal with. 

      It’s stuff like that which is why I think even subtle instances of white-washing in media is detrimental to everyone. It’s a subconscious message being sent; one that is instilling in our mind that minorities aren’t worth what whites are. We aren’t good enough to be super heroes, we aren’t good enough to be main characters, etc. I tend to not get angry; but it does hurt. And in the case of Assassin’s Creed, I just don’t see why they couldn’t cast a non-white actor for the lead, other than the above reasons. 

      I’m glad people are aware of this, though. Thank you so much for reading!

      • I.. have a very difficult time talking about these subjects. I’m sort of replying to you and KH here. I do see what you mean about sending subconscious messages, and I can understand why that is more… sensitive I guess? And yes, there NEED to be A LOT more heroes and other characters that are POC and women. It just feels off to me whenever an existing character (who has a specified race/gender) is changed.

        I’m very sorry about your work situation, I know that you work your ass off at that job. When I say that I want to treat people like people, and not a gender or race, I don’t mean that I want to deny the struggles or the inequities that they face, I mean that I want there to BE no inequities, and to try my hardest to make sure that I don’t cause them. That goes both ways; I don’t want white men to make more than women of color simply because of those differences, but I likewise don’t want to encourage the idea that someone deserves something MORE because of their color, either because they are in the majority, or because as someone who faces oppression they deserve EXTRA special treatment. And I don’t think most POC want that either. 

        The reason I don’t like talking about these subjects a lot on the internet is that being a SWM, I am often inundated with what often amounts to dismissal of my personal views and opinions because, as a person of privilege, I can’t really compare my life experiences with others and if I don’t agree with some views, it’s because I’m not oppressed, so my opinion doesn’t really matter. I’m not trying to sound like a victim; I am well aware of my life’s fortunate circumstances (as well as unrelated unfortunate ones), but it does frustrate me. In a way, it’s incredibly appropriate to have my feelings and arguments dismissed because of my gender, race, and sexual orientation; it is after all exactly what happens the other way around on a daily basis to women and POC. I have a short temper, and tend to want to respond angrily when I feel like I’m being dismissed, attacked, or generalized, and I don’t want to be that way.

        Anyway, considering I started off by saying I don’t like talking about this very much, I sure have started to go on about it. Regardless, you deserve better than you are given, thanks for your reply.

        • Soltian

           …but I likewise don’t want to encourage the idea that someone deserves
          something MORE because of their color, either because they are in the
          majority, or because as someone who faces oppression they deserve EXTRA
          special treatment. And I don’t think most POC want that either.

          Greibach, I think this is really the core of the problem! I fully believe that you don’t want females or POC to be treated unequally. But there is a very harmful myth about women’s rights/racial awareness – the myth that we’re fighting for some kind of superiority, and we’re NOT. We just want fair representation, and casting most ethnic characters in books/comics/cartoons/video games as white actors when they hit the big screen is not fair representation.

          Women and POC have taken upon it ourselves to talk about this more and more because we’re fed up with discrimination, ignorance, and unfair treatment. It is, inevitably, making the powers that be (white men like yourself) uncomfortable, because you are the ones we have to make understand that we are suffering when you ignore these inequalities. Because you are the ones in power. Because things are not equal. Not yet.

          You have the comfort to take your comfort for granted. Your privilege is a good thing, it’s -privilege-. It’s what everyone wants. The only trouble is when you willfully ignore that it’s not what everyone else has.

          • “But there is a very harmful myth about women’s rights/racial awareness – the myth that we’re fighting for some kind of superiority, and we’re NOT.” 

            I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I believed otherwise. I think that some people actually do want that (though they don’t THINK they do, that is what their actual aim is), but there are always outliers that give groups a bad name on the whole. People are often lumped in with others that claim to want or represent the same things, when in fact they do not. It’s part of the reason that its so difficult to have these kinds of discussions with complete strangers.

  • I have like…all of the feelings on this. So I’ll basically just sum it up as “this post is awesome”.

    The one nice thing about AC is that there really isn’t one main central character throughout the series. There’s Desmond, I guess, but he’s pretty much just there to link together stories. So far we have four leading characters, including Aveline, and the whole Assassin vs. Templar story itself is so vast that you could place stories involving it at any point in time, anywhere in the world, and make it work. I would hope that for a movie they’d do a fresh story, instead of just trying (and failing) to rehash one of the games. So in that case, casting a white guy could be okay…

    …but considering the characters we’ve seen in the games and other media thus far (there’s also Jun, the Chinese Assassin seen in the Embers animated short…btw, don’t watch that unless you want huge spoilers for Ezio’s story), it seems like a copout. 

    Ubisoft, don’t go the copout route.

  • Distilled

    I can’t see Ubisoft bringing in one of the existing characters for this film. As much as they’d like to retain all creative control, they will always have to relinquish a little and that might compromise that delicate balance which exists in games such as AC – where the back story is so rich and detailed that one poorly thought out move in the film could jeopardize the entire pack of cards.

    So, I think they’ll sidestep the whole race thing by bringing in a white character. I don’t think they would be so short sighted as to make Fassbender into Altair. (I’m always slightly amused by their “BY THE WAY WE AREN’T RACIST” passage they put at the start of each game). But I’m always astounded by the short-sightedness of production companies, so you never know.

    Btw, I think Greibach handled himself with a lot of dignity in this thread. Kudos

  • Itherei

    spanish people are white though