Quisqueyanxs in Hollywood: How Lionsgate Got Away With Whitewashing in ‘Exposed’
Written by Moraima Capellán Pichardo
On January 22, 2016, Lionsgate studio released Exposed directed by Declan Dale. Except, Dale doesn’t exist. Dale is a pseudonym for first-time Jamaican-American director Gee Linton whose creation, Daughter of God was whitewashed so bad that he legally fought (and won) to remove his name. Linton won’t speak on what went down but I got the chisme from cast and crew members who gave details on how a primarily Spanish language film revolving around a Dominican family in the heights was re-edited into a generic Keanu Reeves cop thriller.
As Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac explained in an interview following the Golden Globe awards—we still have a long way to go on the fight for fair and equal opportunities and representation in American cinema for all people of color. As Latinxs who are often grouped together, there’s reason to collectively celebrate the victories of artists like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Gael Garcia Bernal and Oscar Isaac in the film industry. But, we mustn’t ignore the nonsense still going on behind the scenes in the Hollywood machine.
Such is the case with recent victim of whitewashing via Lionsgate: Gee Malik Linton and his film Daughter of God.
Whitewashing occurs when white actors portray historically non-white character roles. Whitewashing has a long history and has often been entwined with black, brown and yellowface. Most recently, the whitewashing discussion has been reignited in the Asian communities by the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the film, The Ghost in the Shell (adapted from a classic Japanese manga) and Tilda Swinton in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Both white actresses have replaced characters of Asian origins.
It is these practices coupled with the lack of roles available to actors and filmmakers that lead to #OscarSoWhite, a hashtag used this past winter to bring attention to the all-white acting nominees at the Academy Awards for the second year in a row.
Exposed has a 5% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes (at time of publication). It is the type of film that, given the current climate of endless “diversity” debates, serves as a prime example of the practices that created #OscarSoWhite in the first place. This winter became a shameless show of which white actor can embarrass themselves the worst when faced with the D-word. Some not only put their foot in their mouth but practically ate it (See: Charlotte Rampling).
First-time writer and director Linton intended to make a female-driven and Spanish-language based movie exploring child abuse and sexual assault. Instead, we got Exposed, a generic cop thriller staring Keanu Reeves.
How did this happen? Early reports from Page Six and The Guardian claim that after an extreme re-editing led by the studio and Reeves, Linton fought to legally remove his name from the film. The results: his name was replaced by the pseudonym, Declan Dale; the name of the film became Exposed; and a cast of diverse characters took a back seat to Reeves.
Make no mistake, this is a different form of whitewashing but it is whitewashing nonetheless. Let’s spell it out for those that will inevitably comment arguing otherwise: re-editing characters of color to the background while simultaneously putting a basic white heterosexual man to the foreground is whitewashing.
When contacted, Linton declined to comment. I was however able to speak with other filmmakers involved in the production and also had the opportunity to watch both versions of the film: Daughter of God—following the director’s vision and edited by renowned editor, Herve de Luze—and the Lionsgate studio version, Exposed.
Set in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, Daughter of God follows, Peruvian Isabel de la Cruz (Cuban actress Ana de Armas) and her Dominican-American family (adopted through marriage) after a strange set of events involving the death of crooked cop, Joey Cullen. Investigating his partner’s death is detective Scott Galban, played sheepishly by Reeves along with other minor roles portrayed by Mira Sorvino and Christopher McDonald.
In Daughter of God Linton managed to balance the dreamlike world, resembling Guillermo Del Toro’s past work (See Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone), of an assault survivor with the reality of trauma and police brutality all while staying respectful to the immigrant Dominican culture it uses as a backdrop.
Growing up my grandmother always used a popular Dominican saying that goes “no desbarates con los pies lo que hiciste con las manos” which loosely translated goes along the lines of “don’t thwart with your feet what you created with your hands.”
Exposed squanders most if not all the accomplishments of Daughter of God.
Original producer, Mark Downie, says it all comes down to the business methods of Lionsgate and Keanu Reeves.
“We are not trying to be in the artistic and cultural integrity game,” Downie said describing the decisions made by Lionsgate that lead to Exposed. “We are trying to be in the money game.”
The money game
According to Downie, who is also a partner and producer at Battery Park Entertainment, this is how it all went down.
Linton wrote the script in 2009 and from its inception the story featured all of the social, cultural and political layers present in his cut of the film. Also present was the supporting role of Detective Galban, originally intended for Philip Seymour Hoffman but that ultimately went to Reeves. Due to financial troubles the project was pushed to the side until the winter of 2013 when Reeves came on-board and also signed on as a producer.
Downie explained that during pre-production the equity-financing fell through—and there the problems began.
“When you don’t have equity financing that you are in control of for a really special and powerful independent film and you bring a studio into the mix, unless you have the power to stand up to that studio, that studio could take over your project and remake it what they deem should be the most commercially viable,” Downie said. “To hell with the cultural elements and artistic elements that you’ve spent years creating and refining.”
Downie claims that Reeves approached Lionsgate— selling the studio an archetypal crime thriller. Downie explained that negotiations occurred without any input from Linton, and because it happened during production, with Linton’s back turned, everything slipped through the cracks.
“They were sold an independent Keanu Reeves crime thriller, a predominantly English language thriller, whereas the script that Keanu had signed on board to co-star in and produce… was a female driven drama,” Downie said.
Lionsgate was not interested in Linton’s vision for Daughter of God, so it recalibrated the film to revolve around the character of Detective Galban.
“By the time the deal is getting papered, the film is being shot, and it seems that based on how things are communicated that there is a way out — if the film that’s made doesn’t fit into the box that Lionsgate wants to put it,” Downie said.
Downie does not understand how and why Reeves stood by in agreement as these decisions were made. “Keanu as an executive producer has to step up and… stand up to the studio in support of the independent and the original vision,” Downie said.
I reached out to a representative for Keanu Reeves but had not heard back at the time of publication.
Linton then attempted to play Lionsgate’s game and approached them with a financial buyout offer. According to Downie, Lionsgate gave him five days to provide proof of funding. In that short period of time, Linton assembled $3.5 million, with his financiers willing to go as high as $4.2 million — more than enough to cover Lionsgate’s return on the film — but Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer declined.
“If I understand [correctly], Jon Feltheimer nixed the deal. And that’s really important,” Downie said. “I don’t understand how that happened but obviously he and Lionsgate figured that they would be able to make a greater profit margin.”
At the time of publication and after initial contact, I had not heard back from a Lionsgate representative for comment.
A whitewashing tradition
Lionsgate is of course the same studio behind the whitewashing of the beloved Katniss Everdeen, and Gods of Egypt. Just this past November, the studio shared an official apology regarding its casting in the latter film, claiming that “Lionsgate is deeply committed to making films that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We have, can and will continue to do better.” Flash-forward a couple of months later and the studio appears to have consciously destroyed the first project of a black director featuring a diverse cast of people of color.
This news startled casting director Ellyn Long Marshall, who worked closely with Gee Linton in Daughter of God. Marshall, who has lived in Washington Heights for over 40 years, explained that Linton was adamant about casting real Dominicans to play the family and real Latinos from the very beginning of the writing process. She described it as a slap in the face when word got back to her that the film was being changed for commercial reasons.
“I still was unprepared for even the trailer…this is a whole different film so I’m glad they changed the name,” Marshall said. “ I don’t understand how they could have taken out the essence of the film.”
Both Marshall and Downie believe they had a fantastic film on their hands — one that Lionsgate could have used to pitch themselves to more diverse markets and demographics. Linton had done their diversity community service for them in the wake of Gods of Egypt, but like most discussions about diversity in Hollywood, actions speak louder than meaningless verbiage meant to stifle the voices of those affected.
“We’ve seen the time we are living in, a time of #BlackLivesMatter,” Downie said reflecting on recent hits such as Straight Out of Compton and comparing Daughter of God to Spanish-language hit Maria Full of Grace.
“People are really tuned into what is happening and not just to a point to want to see themselves portrayed authentically on screen but they also want to see meaningful stories,” Downie said.
Do we really need to constantly remind studio executives that Latinxs are one of the fastest growing populations in the states? When it comes to movie tickets, we also disproportionally outspend other demographics. Even more specific, Dominicans are the largest population of Latinos in New York City, where this story and film take place.
“Gee did everything he possibly could,” said Downie, also claiming that a boycott of the type we have seen with movies such as Exodus would unfortunately only harm those who had no choice in the decisions taken by Lionsgate. He wants to support this project, but in doing so, he finds himself circling a compromised film.
Is there a solution? Downie believes only a large outcry might be able to force another release of Daughter of God.
For actor Gabriel Lopez, his experience with Daughter of God was the last straw in a series of lessons that confirmed his belief that Hollywood does not care for people of color, for neighborhoods or culture.
“They juice you up, put you up there, massage you and after a while they squeeze you for what it is, for your culture, for whatever they want…then they leave,” Lopez said.
Lopez explained that he helped Linton not only adjust the dialogue in the script to match Dominican slang but he convinced a skeptical neighborhood to let the cameras in.
“I brought a lot of Dominican faces to it, I brought my own neighborhood,” Lopez said. “And again they cut them short.”
Like Downie, Lopez asserts that it was obviously important to Linton to portray the realness of Washington Heights and a Latino community that is so often grouped together without regards to the differences. It was Linton’s respect and ability to immerse himself in the community without exploiting it that attracted Lopez to the project.
Lopez couldn’t finish watching the Lionsgate version. He shut it off. But it inspired him to assemble his own team of creators. Lopez is currently working on Washington Heights: City Inside a City, a web series attempting to portray the diversity of his gentrifying neighborhood.
“This game is just like the streets,” Lopez said. “Hey man, Keanu Reeves is in the house, what do you think? Gee Linton? Or Keanu Reeves?
About the author: Moraima Capellán Pichardo is a Dominican-born, Brooklyn- raised, wordsmith and visual creator. A graduate of (SUNY) State University of New York at Oswego in Journalism and Cinema and Screen Studies her work often focuses on the cultural analysis of the immigrant and Latino experience on and off screen. Moraima enjoys long discussions
bashing on Hollywood cinema, Instameets with other photographers, and binge eating tropical fruits.. Find more of her work at moraimacp.com.