In a world where people are taking to the streets, saying “Black lives matter”—where TV shows and films like Empire, Selma, Jane the Virgin, Straight Outta Compton, Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish are getting high ratings and winning awards—one movie studio allegedly said no to all that diversity and instead chose to take us back to a “simpler” time when all your intimate black and brown dramas were instead predominantly white, bland vehicles for stars like Keanu Reeves.
That studio is Lionsgate. The film is Daughter of God. And the accusation is whitewashing.
An indie drama by a Jamaican-American first-time director, Gee Malik Linton, Daughter of God was supposed to be a quiet, surreal story about a Latina woman and the Dominican family she lives with, featuring subplots about violence against women and the twin effects of mass incarceration and police brutality on black and Latino communities. But now, because of drastic changes in the film’s edit, Daughter of God has become Exposed, a generic, middling thriller debuting this January and starring Reeves. Large subplots involving Latino and black characters have been cut, and the trailer features predominantly white faces.
“You need the white guy,” said Mark Downie, an original producer of the film, when describing what happened to Daughter of God. “So you remove so much of what’s special and unique of [the original] storyline and you take that square peg and you just try to drive that through that round hole for the sake of revenue.”
Linton, who also wrote Daughter of God, sued to have his name removed from the project—which now, according to IMDb, has been directed by a “Declan Dale.” While Linton did not comment on the apparent whitewashing of his film, a number of people directly involved did speak to The Root about what Lionsgate did.
“[We went] from a masterpiece to ‘here we go again,’ taking away the pure reality of the story, the core. Taking away everything because of Keanu Reeves, because he could sell more with his face,” said Gabriel Lopez, who acted in the film and is a native of New York City’s diverse Washington Heights neighborhood, where much of the movie was shot.
Lopez accused Lionsgate of being a “culture vulture,” of using the neighborhood and its people for the film, but not staying true to the film’s original vision, which he said was about highlighting Dominican-American culture.
Downie, who is a partner-producer with Battery Park Entertainment, was introduced to Linton by actor-activist Danny Glover in 2007, a year after Linton wrote the screenplay. Downie said that those who read the script, including Reeves, found it to be “very powerful.”
According to Downie and others interviewed, before it became Exposed, more than half of Daughter of God was originally in Spanish and was a starring vehicle for Cuban actress Ana de Armas, whom Reeves recommended for the role. The film also heavily featured Big Daddy Kane, Gabe Vargas and Orange Is the New Black’s Laura Gómez. Reeves’ part—that of a white police officer investigating his partner’s murder—was supposed to be a smaller, supporting role, originally intended for Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February 2014. Those who worked on the film described the role as the kind of part that bigger, A-list actors take in order to help a small, independent film like Daughter of God get funding.
But Reeves’ involvement apparently came at a price, and that price was the integrity of the film once Lionsgate got involved.
“Gee had his own money sources. I had access to some financing sources. Keanu asked if he could use some of his sources, and in turn that money fell through during preproduction,” Downie said. “That’s when Lionsgate was approached.”