People commenting on my review of the film mentioned this fact, and some subsequent Internet browsing confirms that it's been a hot topic among some observers ever since the film was announced. (I confess not having paid the film any attention until the marketing campaign kicked into high gear around the first of the year.) The character played by Jim Sturgess in the movie was named Jeff Ma in real life, and he and most of his teammates were Asian. In the movie, only two minor characters are still Asian, played by Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira.
So the question is: Is the ethnicity-swapping the result of racism? Is it something else? Does it matter?
At the blog Angry Asian Man, the author (whose name doesn't seem to be anywhere on the site) says that the characters' ethnicity played a part in their success: "[Being Asian-American] was actually advantageous to their strategy, as it happens, because Asian dudes winning big money at the casinos apparently aren't quite as conspicuous as white dudes who win big at the casinos." At Ultrabrown, Manish Vij writes, "Are you kidding me? A movie about math, MIT and gambling, and the lead was made white? Have you ever seen the pai gow tables in Vegas?"
Some people are angry about it; others are merely shaking their heads and laughing at the screwed-up Hollywood movie-making process. A post on a Rotten Tomatoes message board was quick to throw out the "R" word: "By any definition the casting process in '21' is racist."
Well, now, hang on. Most people define "racism" as believing one race is inherently better than another, or automatically disliking people of a particular race. Did the studio executives who whitewashed the 21 cast do so because they don't like Asians? Probably not. The most likely reason is simply that they figured an all-Asian film wouldn't sell as many tickets. Usually, when an American film has an all-minority cast, it's because the movie is aimed directly at that minority group. The studio guys were probably just doing their job, which was to give the film as much widespread appeal as possible. I don't think they were "racist," unless we dramatically expand the definition of that word. I also think that crying "racism" all the time diminishes the impact of when something truly is racist, i.e., when there really is malice or hatred involved.
Is it true that a version of 21 with an all-Asian cast wouldn't have made as much money as one with attractive white people? There's no way of knowing, of course. But in general, yeah, movies populated mostly by minorities tend not to be as popular. So is that the result of racism? Probably not consciously, no. I doubt most white Americans see a commercial for a film about Asians and think, "Well, I don't like Asians, so I probably won't see that."
A sociologist could tell you more about this can I could, but it seems to be human nature to gravitate toward people who look like us -- hence a movie starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson (to name the two whitest actors I can think of) will be attended mostly by white people, while the audiences at a Tyler Perry film are overwhelmingly African-American. Is that bad? Is that wrong? I dunno. It just is.
That said, I do sympathize with Asian-Americans who are frustrated by the serious lack of movie roles for their fellow Asians. They hear a book about Asian card-counters is being made into a movie, and they get excited ... only to learn the movie will be almost all-white. Sigh. I've never been part of an ethnic minority, so I can't exactly relate to what it must be like to go to movies all the time and almost exclusively see people who don't look like me. (Not that Brad Pitt or George Clooney really look like me, either, but you know what I mean.) It would be nice if more Hollywood studios would take a bigger chance on films with minority casts, especially in stories -- like 21 -- where it would be appropriate to do so.