As everyone is already well aware, Netflix’s casting choices for Death Note are less than ideal. Considering that the movie is based on an extremely popular anime, and one that has undoubtedly garnered many Asian American fans, it is difficult to see this as anything but yet another missed opportunity to increase the visibility of Asian American actors in US cinema. This is especially true of the protagonist Light Yagami, now given the Westernized name Light Turner, who is portrayed by a white male actor.
However, the casting of black actor Keith Stanfield as L is a bit more contentious.
Many rightfully argue that diversity is not a quota.
Having one person of color in the cast does not right the wrong of casting a white actor in the title role. Though I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, when reanalyzing the basic thrust of Death Note’s narrative, I realized that casting L as a black actor and Light as a white actor presents the writers with a unique opportunity to criticize generic white male heroism.
First, let me backtrack a bit. The original version of Death Note essentially told the story of an egomaniac who systematically killed perpetrators of violent and petty crime for the purpose of his own self-aggrandizement. His rival L, while not exactly selfless and heroic himself, differed primarily in the sense that he suffered from much smaller delusions of grandeur compared to Light. Race was a non-issue in the story, and Light’s relatively privileged position in society was rarely, if ever, seriously questioned or scrutinized.
In this regard, the American adaptation can and should differ.
Let’s look at the story in the context of Netflix’s casting: Light, a young white man, and one from an upper middle class background to boot, systematically kills criminals and prisoners, which in the American context is a population that is disproportionately black. He does this presumably to make the world a better place, but in reality, it is a grand sociopathic exercise in stroking his own ego. In contrast, L is depicted by a black actor, and although he is not quite the hero we deserve, he at least has enough awareness to call Light out on his BS.
This twist on the narrative would require a complete, unwavering dedication to the portrayal of Light as an unrepentant villain, one so mired in his own hero complex that he is blinded to the utter evil of his actions. It would also require a commitment in portraying Light as the ultimate benefactor of US society, and in depicting the many ways in which his own privileged position allows him to perpetrate his crimes.
As for L, he will continue to be diametrically opposed to Light. As mentioned previously, he matches Light in intelligence, but lacks his lust for power and dominion over others. In other words, L essentially differs from Light in that he does not have a god complex — because he’s not a self-obsessed White Savior.
This version of Death Note presents an Americanized tale that might actually be worth telling, one that shines a spotlight on the structural injustices in our justice system and how easy it is for a villain to take power when the system is on his side.
That said … do I honestly believe that Netflix will take this route?
To be blunt, I very much doubt it.
In all likeliness, Netflix will take a safer route and avoid adopting an overtly “political” tone to their narrative. And even if they do take this risk, I still believe that choosing a white actor to play Light was ultimately the wrong decision and casting literally anyone else could have resulted in a more interesting story with greater thematic depth.
But even with their unfortunate casting decisions, Netflix still has the chance to salvage this movie and to adapt the Death Note story in a way that matters. Time will tell whether they’ll be able to deliver.
Official image taken from the Bloody Disgusting website.