Lakeith Stanfield explains why Netflix’s new Death Note film isn’t whitewashing

Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

On August 25th, Netflix is releasing its adaptation of the best-selling Japanese manga and anime series Death Note, about a sociopath who is granted a magical book by a Grim Reaper. Anyone person’s name he writes down in the book will die, in the exact manner he prescribes. As he uses the book to kill criminals, an eccentric genius investigator who goes by “L” starts hunting him down.

Netflix’s live-action version of the story, directed by Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next), is set in Seattle, Washington, and it isn’t nearly as intrigue-focused as the original series. Its public reception has certainly been controversial: as early as 2012, Death Note drew ire when rumors of its predominately white casting surfaced. It’s the latest film to come under fire for reinterpreting Asian characters with white actors, after Ghost in the Shell, Dragonball Evolution, and Doctor Strange. But some observers have defended the film, particularly since Netflix’s Death Note has a black hero: Lakeith Stanfield (Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Donald Glover’s series Atlanta) plays L, the embattled detective scrambling to stop the killings. I recently sat down with Stanfield to hear about his take on the film, his appreciation for Death Note and Japanese culture, and the whitewashing controversy.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get involved in the film?

When the story was presented to me, Adam Wingard and I read the script and I thought it was an interesting concept. Then I watched the anime, then I read the manga, then I realized it was something I fucking loved, and L was a character I was in love with, so I had to be a part of it.

Did you draw on the manga and anime versions when you were preparing to play L?

I definitely drew off the manga and anime. I came dressed to the fitting as L was in the anime. I wanted to be as close as I could to what that was in the beginning. I didn't realize until arriving to the set how much we were doing something radically different. Once I realized that, I said, "Oh, okay, okay. So we're referencing this, but we're going to create a whole new story. Got it! Let's go.” So I kind of learned that later.

After you learned that, did you change your conception of L?

A little bit. I mean, I kind of had to. Obviously there would be different things I could do if I didn't have half my face covered. So, yeah, there were a lot of different things I needed to amend in order to fit into the confines of this new story.

Lakeith Stanfield as L.

With your work in Get Out, Atlanta, and Jay Z’s Moonlight video, you’re participating in works with a lot of poignant social commentary. Do you see Death Note as having its own social commentary? What are your thoughts about the whitewashing criticisms?

I think Death Note presents social commentary on things like morality and mortality. Questions of justice and whose right it is to be the arbiter of life and death — these kinds of big discussions that we've had for centuries. As far as the issue of whitewashing, I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding. Especially when applied to this film in particular, because this film takes place in Seattle, in America. So it would make sense that the cast reflects American demographics.

There is an Asian-American [character] in the film. If people would go out and see it, they would realize that. But the idea that we should turn the whole cast into a Japanese cast just doesn't fit the demographics of America. And that's the reason it didn't happen. It's not because we were trying to make a conscious decision to not cast — at least, this is my opinion. I'm not the person in charge of it.

But in my opinion, it didn't look as if it was because we didn't want anybody. That's ridiculous. Japanese people created it, I mean, they're the people behind it. And so that's just a fundamental misunderstanding. [People] misunderstand sometimes what an adaptation is. We are taking the original source material and creating a new story with that as a spine. [The original version is] the skeleton. We give it the blood and the guts and the skin. And that's what the movie became.

I understand why people would be mad. I understand people who are really big fans of the source material would not like to see it changed. I totally get that. I've been hearing the term “blackwashing,” which is funny, as applied to me with L. I just think it's great. I love that word.

What do you make of Japanese fans saying, “Oh, L being black doesn't fit with his character”?

Welcome to the internet, where people can be unfiltered about whatever their views are, and a lot of people just troll as well. So yeah, there's a lot of stuff being said, but there's just as many, if not more people who think it's exciting to see the character portrayed in this way. I'm on that team. [Laughs] But it's cool, I'm glad there's a conversation happening. I think when people go out to see the film, they can make their conclusion. Or stay in to see it. Or just watch it on their phone, or your tablet, or your TV, wherever you wanna watch it.

Darius stares at a samurai sword in Atlanta.
Image: FX

In Atlanta, Darius plays with samurai swords. Are you personally interested in Japanese culture?

I am. I love Japanese culture. I know I'm like a weird American, saying, "I love Japanese culture," and I don't really even fucking know anything about it, but I do like the aesthetic. I'm actually going to Japan soon, in a couple of days. So I'm going to see really what it is!

We do get a lot of input on Atlanta. That's what's really fun about Atlanta, is that we have as much creative say as the writers, as anyone else. And so we bring something to the table. They're definitely listening, and seeing how they can fit it into the character. I love swords. It just so happens that Darius does as well. But I don't want to reveal too many secrets. [Laughs]

Are you going to Japan to promote Death Note? Will you have time for tourism?

[Whispers] Oh, I'm gonna have a good time. [Regular voice] Oh definitely. I want to fucking see what's up, man. Death Note could wait! Nah, I'm just kidding. We're going there to talk about that. But I also can't wait to see robots and sumo wrestling, and eat great sushi. I love sushi so much. Hopefully I can get some authentic stuff, and maybe some real dope ramen.

Earlier this year, you were in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. He said in a recent interview with The Verge that he’s a true believer in a narrative’s ability to change minds. Do you agree with that?

Yes, I do. And being a part of Get Out was... I'm still living in it, still feeling it, still feeling the residue effects. It changed my life.

Do you feel like a rising star now? Is your fame changing from day to day?

Totally. The life around me changes more than I really feel change. I feel the same as I've always felt. But yeah, I can see the tension rising. I'm getting recognized a lot, and that's interesting. But I'm much less focused on that than I am on just continuing to expand my work. I don't really care about all that other stuff much. But it is nice to have people say you've done a good job. I really appreciate it, and I really appreciate people supporting me, spending their hard-earned money to see something I'm in.

What new projects are you working on?

I have a couple I'm working on. One I just got off of, called Sorry to Bother You, which I did with Boots Riley and beautiful Tessa [Thompson], who I miss. We all worked really hard together. And it was the shit. I loved it. That'll be coming soon. And I'm going back to work on Atlanta soon. We start shooting in September.

Will you work with Jordan Peele again?

I hope so. I hope we can engage in something cool again. He's just such a smart dude, I'd love to pick his brain and eat it and swallow it and then poop it out and then eat it again.

Are you dressed up as L right now?

Nope. This is just me. I guess I kind of am like L in some ways, you know. Ways I don't even really realize. I guess I can be very awkward, and I guess I'm kind of smart, so I don't know.

Yeah, me, too. Sorry I'm so awkward.

No problem at all. I invite awkwardness. I'm the King of Awkward. Let's get reaaal awkward, and it's a fun place. And I'm not judging you at all. I don't judge people. So, you know, you don't have to worry.

Comments

Nice interview, he seems really cool in person. I mean I didn’t assume otherwise, but still…

I was aware of Death Note but haven’t been following it closely, and I had not heard of any controversy. Stanfield got it right, it’s nothing more nor less than an adaptation. Kurosawa’s Ran was an adaptation of King Lear, but I didn’t go into it expecting to see English dudes running around.

Or for another example: Hamlet sounds much better in its original Klingon.

I’m more worried that changed Light from a strategic genius to bullied high school boy trope.

Oh yeah, I can’t comment at all on the actual content…except maybe "Hope for the best, expect the worst."

They were probably worried that he’d be too unsympathetic if he seemed too powerful and together vs being a loser we all feel sorry for.

I appreciate what he said, but to be honest – I find myself thinking, ’ They could have casted an Asian American Actor and still cast stanfield as L. If Rush Hours 1-3 did convince them, Aziz Ansari showed that we’d gladly watch two non-white American leads in a show. All while still giving white people some dope supporting roles.’ *

I guess I just feel for them (Asian-Americans) if I saw a white actor about to play a role for an ‘Americanized’ version of a comic originally set in Accra, I’d be measurably dissatisfied. Like, ‘we can’t have our own stories either?!’

*Opinions may be subject to change upon viewing the series

I’m not a fan of change for the sake of change. This stinks of that. I’m pretty certain that there are a TON of qualified Asian actors who could easily do the character justice. I’m as opposed to this as much as I am White Khan Noonian Singh from NewTrek.

It’s a remake based in America, with American characters. The original is available for streaming on Netflix. Everyone can decide for their own damn selves. Nothing is being taken away from anyone.

Seattle, like the US as a whole, is more or less 2/3 white. That doesn’t mean white should be the default when creating or casting characters there. That is the crux of the complaints about "whitewashing."

I’m not someone who thinks that when adapting an anime everyone should be Asian, but there is a distinct lack of Asian-American characters in our media and when they do show up (usually in supporting roles) we rarely get a glimpse inside their families, their home lives, etc. to dilute the stereotypes of "tiger moms" and stern disappointed fathers we are exposed to. I had no expectation of seeing a Japanese Light in this adaptation, and I wouldn’t have wanted to, but a Japanese-American Light I could have gotten behind.

Either way I’ll give it a fair shake, but it isn’t unreasonable to ask these questions when the pattern has become so clear and unbroken.

What controversy? The comments defending this on The Verge vs the comments on the many articles pounding Ghost in the Shell are illuminating, to say the least.

For the record, I think it’s stupid to be hung up over the ethnicity of an actor; I just find the selective application of faux outrage to be amusing.

It’s an adaptation of a story. A story that is not so intrinsically Japanese or culturally sensitive that it couldn’t work set somewhere else.

It would be nice to see more Asian-American faces. It would be nice to see more diversity generally. But Death Note has no narrative imperative to insist on it.

Welcome to the internet, where people can be unfiltered about whatever their views are, and a lot of people just troll as well. So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff being said,

I really wish more people had this sort of attitude.

I don’t really care that he’s black, but i do that its persona is not quirky looking. They should have just kept the Death Note and change all the characters name at this point.

Just let an Asian-American actor play Light. How difficult is that?

If I’m not mistaken, they didn’t even allow Asian-American actors to audition for the role.

"Oh, okay, okay. So we’re referencing this, but we’re going to create a whole new story. Got it! Let’s go." So I kind of learned that later." This perfectly captures why it’s not whitewashing people are concerned about. They have completely butchered the whole point of the show.

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