Death Note (2017)
“This F grade has nothing to do with whitewashing and everything to do with being a walking disaster of a film.”
Title: Death Note (2017)
Director: Adam Wingard 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Original story by Tsugumi Ohba 👨🏻🇯🇵, screenplay by Charley Parlapanides 👨🏼🇺🇸, Vlas Parlapanides 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Jeremy Slater 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Netflix’s Death Note is the first American foray into the long-running, Japanese series by the same name which began in 2003 as a manga and quickly spawned anime, novels, videogames, films, a live-action drama, and even a musical. Unfortunately, no amount of name-brand recognition can save this travesty of an adaptation. I’ll let Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com take the reins for this category:
“The filmmaking is sporadic, amateurish and haphazard...and the ending will have you switching off your Netflix app in disgust. If you don't die from boredom before you get there.”
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
The only female character with any substantial dialogue is Mia (Margaret Qualley), the girlfriend of main character Light Turner (Nat Wolff), FKA Light Yagami. Mia is depicted as an evil nutso sex fiend who goads Light into killing innocent people “in the name of justice”. While the premise of the entire Death Note franchise is precisely the exploration of good vs evil, Wingard’s rendition hoovers out any of the nuance that made the manga so successful. Instead, the writers paint Mia as the overt adversary: a manipulative young women who wraps Light’s heart around her pinky like a mythological siren attempting to lure him to his death.
Super white except for Lakeith Stanfield in the role of Light’s arch nemesis, the code-named L who works with Interpol to chase down Light. I’m giving this film an okay score on Race since there are really only three main characters (four if you count Ryuk, the supernatural death god), and one of them is black. In the original Death Note, all the main characters are Japanese so I wouldn’t find it remiss if all the main characters in this rendition were equally homogenous.
That being said, setting this film in Seattle knocks this score down a bit. Seattle is pretty diverse at 30% of the population being non-white—14% Asian, 8% black, 5% mixed race, and 3% other according to the 2010 Census. Thus, the “but we’re set in America!” defense feels a bit weaker.
As for how L is portrayed, I was so disappointed by Stanfield’s performance. I’ve loved the quirky and varied roles he’s had on Get Out and The Incredible Jessica James, while his understated comedy in Atlanta is one of my favorite things about that show. Yet somehow, it all falls apart—especially strange considering how Stanfield’s “quirkiness” should have been a perfect fit for the eccentricity of L. I mean, just look at these goobers:
This casting should have worked. But man, when a film falls hard, it takes its talent with it I guess.
Before I move on to the next section, I’ll mention my personal take on how I’m interpreting the whitewashing controversy that surrounds this film. First, I don’t actually think the process of importing Death Note to the United States and setting it in Seattle with white characters itself is problematic. It simply feels like a missed opportunity, when paying homage to source material with an Japanese American lead could have lent this film a bit more depth and would hardly have felt forced in a city where more than 1 in 10 residents are Asian.
As a thought exercise, what would have bothered me is if Wingard and team decided to change the title upon import, as with films like The Departed (2006) which remade Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002), or The Lake House (2006) which remade South Korea’s Il Mare (2000). While I didn’t need Leonardo DiCaprio to be an Asian American cop then, and I wouldn’t need it now, it did bother me that The Departed was marketed in the United States as an original Martin Scorsese film. Yes, I realize The Departed was awarded Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards that year (along with Best Picture and Best Director wins). But as the average moviegoer I had assumed The Departed was an original work, and this belief skews closer to the appropriation of work by Hong Kong creators. In Death Note, the film is clearly acknowledging its Japanese roots.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.67/5
This F grade has nothing to do with whitewashing and everything to do with being a walking disaster of a film. If you see it on Netflix, skip right on over. And if you’re curious about the premise, check out the anime which is (also on Netflix) and watch this culture-specific material the way it was meant to be seen and enjoyed.