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Disney’s live-action ‘Lilo & Stitch’ remake sparks another debate about colorism in Hollywood

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

Disney’s animated hit “Lilo & Stitch” is getting the live-action treatment, but a reported casting decision has set off a new conversation about colorism in Hollywood.

Some fans were disappointed after The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that Sydney Agudong was set to play Nani, Lilo’s overworked older sister and legal guardian. Born and raised in Hawaii, Agudong is mixed race. Though it is unclear if she has Hawaiian heritage, critics of the reported casting have focused on the issue of colorism — in the 2002 animated version, Nani has dark skin and distinctive indigenous features, while Agudong is light-skinned.

Hawaii has the largest proportion of multiracial people in the nation, and because of the history of colonialism on the islands, it’s common for residents to be a combination of White, Asian and Native Hawaiian. That means there are plenty of Hawaiians with lighter skin, and having lighter skin doesn’t make a person less Hawaiian, said OniMasai Connor, who lives in Oahu and is Black and Hawaiian.

But by choosing a light-skinned actor to play a character who originally had dark skin, Disney is reinforcing deep-rooted notions about what features are considered acceptable or beautiful in society, she added.

“My issue with the casting is the fact that we live in a supremacist society that favors light skin, therefore this casting contributes to a level of erasure,” she wrote in a message to CNN. “We see so often in all genres of cinema — stories based on people that are dark skinned in real life, only to be played by someone lighter in a film.”

Disney, as well as representatives for Agudong, have not responded to requests for comment.

Why some feel Nani’s skin color is relevant

The new “Lilo & Stitch” is based on an animated film and Nani is a fictional, animated character. But unlike “The Little Mermaid,” which is rooted in mythology despite receiving racist backlash over Halle Bailey’s casting in the live-action remake, “Lilo & Stitch” draws from a very real culture and people.

Nani and Lilo’s Hawaiian identity, as well as their skin tone, are important to the story, Connor and others said. For example, one scene from the animated film sees Nani characterize the luau where she works as a “stupid, fakey luau” — a nod to how the tourism industry has exploited Native Hawaiian people and their customs.

“Nani working at the ‘fakey luau’ alone and even using the phrase ‘fakey luau’ to describe that job was an aggressively political statement, involving colorism, indigeneity and the specific history of colonialism the US has imposed upon the nation of Hawaii,” one Twitter user wrote.

Another major plot point of the film revolves around Nani’s precarious economic situation. Nani has been Lilo’s sole caretaker ever since their parents died in a car crash. But as Lilo’s companion Stitch causes chaos at her various places of employment, Nani struggles to hold down a job and is repeatedly warned by a social worker that she could lose custody of her sister. The storyline echoes the real-life crisis of Native children being removed from their homes, as well as the racial disparities in the US child welfare system.

“The conflict occurring in Lilo and Stitch being about the colonialist state attempting to pull this tiny ‘broken’ native Hawaiian family apart is made more apparent by their both being darker skinned girls,” another Twitter user wrote. “Casting a lighter skinned Hawaiian to play Nani interferes with that.”

Colorism is pervasive in Hollywood

Colorism has long been a problem in Hollywood and the broader entertainment industry — stars such as Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o have been vocal about losing opportunities over their dark skin, while others including Zendaya and Thandiwe Newton have acknowledged the privileges that come with having lighter skin.

The live-action “Lilo & Stitch” is only the latest in a long line of projects that have faced accusations of colorism. A similar conversation took place over Disney’s live-action remake of “Aladdin” when Naomi Scott, who is of mixed English and Indian descent, was cast as Princess Jasmine.

“Why is it that, when casting the wife of a terrorist or extra number four in shows like Jack Ryan or Homeland, it seems easy enough to find a dark brown or Middle Eastern woman for the role, but when casting a Disney princess, directors and casting agents are stumped?” Erum Salam wrote in a 2019 piece for The Guardian.

Similarily, the “Gossip Girl” reboot was criticized over the fact that all of its Black stars were light-skinned, while Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of “In the Heights” also got heat for its lack of dark-skinned, Afro-Latinx actors in leading roles. (“Gossip Girl” was rebooted on HBO Max, while “In the Heights” was distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Both companies share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery with CNN.)

Connor said she’s concerned that casting a light-skinned actor in the role of Nani in “Lilo & Stitch” will further misperceptions of what Hawaiians look like. As a Black and Hawaiian woman, she’s often felt that others don’t see her as Hawaiian because of her skin tone. That’s why seeing a darker-skinned actor play Nani would have been meaningful.

“The question really isn’t, ‘Is she enough?’ It is ‘Am I enough?’ and that is so unfortunate considering the original animation did such a wonderful job at making ALL of us feel seen, no matter the skin tone,” Connor wrote. “It’s truly a loss, at no fault of Agudong herself.”

Agudong isn’t to blame for systemic problems that have long plagued the industry, Connor said. Though Connor is disappointed, she hopes the “Lilo & Stitch” remake will otherwise stay true to the original, which she loved so much growing up. And she said she’s still looking forward to seeing the film when it’s released.

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