Scarlett Johansson’s Best Movies And Her Controversial Stance On Whitewashing

By Faith McKay | 6 months ago

scarlett johansson

Scarlett Johansson’s first IMDB credit is from 1994 when she was ten years old. While she started off playing smaller roles in movies like Home Alone 3, her incredibly active career has grown over the years. In both 2018 and 2019, she was the world’s highest-paid actress. She’s gone from an indie darling in movies like Ghost World and Lost in Translation to the major female powerhouse in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow. 

Despite the length of Scarlett Johansson’s career, many of her best-rated movies have come out in the past decade. (Of note: also some of her worst. In 2017 we saw her in both Ghost in the Shell and Rough Night.) Her time in the spotlight has opened up a lot of conversation. Some of it surrounds the types of movies she’s best in. A lot of it involves her eventful love life. She’s often pinned as an actress who seeks out strong female characters. At the same time, she’s been marked as problematic, particularly as a poster child for whitewashing.  

Over the span of her prolific career, Scarlett Johansson has played many characters. Where have we liked her best? Let’s take a look at her top five must-see movies. 

Avengers: Endgame (2019) 

black widow marvel scarlett johnasson


Scarlett Johansson first played Black Widow in The Avengers (2012), and she isn’t done yet. Black Widow has currently been delayed until later in 2021, but fans are eager to finally see the superhero in her own solo movie. Of the Avengers movies she’s been in so far, it’s perhaps no surprise that Endgame is a fan favorite. In an ensemble cast with big names like Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson has scenes in this one that stand out. Particularly that one scene, where her heroic sacrifice is a climactic event after a decade of Avengers stories.

Her (2013)

scarlett johansson her


We don’t actually see Scarlett Johansson in this Spike Jonze movie, but the trailer highlights her voice first thing. In this movie, Johansson plays an operating system named Samantha. She’s at the center of the story. Her character is the love object (object feels right here) of Joaquin Phoenix’s character, a writer in need of human companionship.

Being overly familiar with Scarlett Johansson’s voice after decades of seeing her in movies was probably helpful here in humanizing the operating system. This movie asked big questions about what it is we want from romantic relationships. Do we want it to be easy? Do we want support to be unquestionable? Do we want the trials and tribulations that come with a partner who challenges us? 

Marriage Story (2019)

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This recent movie from writer and director Noah Baumbach got a lot of attention as a tear-jerker. It takes a closer look at the modern family. Here, Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole Barber. She co-stars with Adam Driver. This story is about a marriage falling apart while trying to stay together as a family. It’s a story a lot of modern American families can relate to. At the end of the marriage, Johansson’s character finds herself speaking up a lot more about the parts of their relationship that didn’t work for her. At one moment, she says, “I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness.” In another, she tells him, “You should’ve considered my happiness too.” 

As Scarlett Johansson continues to seek out strong roles for women, some of her top movies take an interesting look at how that’s defined. As Black Widow, her character could be described as emotionally cold. She’s in fight scenes and black clothes. She stands out in a cast mainly of white men. In Marriage Story, Nicole Barber is a woman more familiar to many of us. She’s someone who played second fiddle in her marriage and now, as it is ending, she is surprising her ex-husband as she speaks up for herself and comes into her own. 

Isle of Dogs (2018) 

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In Isle of Dogs, Scarlett Johansson plays Nutmeg. This is one of the smaller roles in this touching Wes Anderson animation, but she stands out as a supporting character to the lead and the romantic interest. She encourages him to do the right thing and help a young boy find his lost dog. This is a quiet animation that’s hard to describe. Some put it down as a drama, others a comedy. It’s a sweet and touching story where Johansson has a small part but is again memorable as one of the only female characters in a male cast. 

The Jungle Book (2016) 

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It’s a bit surprising that two of Scarlett Johansson’s top five movies have her playing animated characters, and three of them have her doing voice work. She isn’t actually in that many movies doing voice work over all. In The Jungle Book, Johansson plays Kaa, the great big snake. Johansson doesn’t often get to be a creepy antagonist. In Isle of Dogs she’s the sweet sidekick. You could say she plays the same in Her as an operating system. Here, she is whispering in Mowgli’s ear the whole story, encouraging him to get himself in trouble. And possibly lead him into a situation where the giant snake might eat him. While Kaa may not be one of her most memorable roles, it’s one where she pulls out different skill sets, including her singing voice. 

Scarlett Johansson’s Choices Have Been Problematic

scarlett johansson ghost in the shell

If you perform a Google search for “what is whitewashing in movies”, the search results actually show you a roster of movies famous for whitewashing. The first movie on that list is Ghost in the Shell. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the controversies surrounding Ghost in the Shell or Scarlett Johansson’s history of casting controversies. 

The story for Ghost in the Shell began as a Japanese manga. Unfortunately, Hollywood has a recent history of taking Asian stories and whitewashing them. There were a few controversies surrounding this movie before it ever came out. Fans of the manga were worried about the adaptation right from the start. Then, they cast Scarlett Johansson in a role where an actress of Asian descent should have been cast. To make matters worse, Johansson doubled down on this decision. She gave interviews defending her choice, telling Marie Claire, “Having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that — the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”

As time goes on, she continues making similar statements and decisions. Her career has become heavily associated with whitewashing and Scarlett Johansson is a name that comes up when discussing white feminism in Hollywood. Showing she hadn’t quite learned from the experience with Ghost in the Shell, she joined a project called Rub and Tug, where she was set to play a transgender man. She, unfortunately, followed this up by saying, “I should be allowed to play any person.” The project has changed hands and is now set to become a television series with a more inclusive cast. She has since said, “In hindsight, I mishandled that situation. I was not sensitive, my initial reaction to it…I wasn’t aware of that conversation. I was uneducated. So I learned a lot through that process. I misjudged that.” 


With these controversies behind her, it’s no surprise that her new husband would be made to finally make an SNL joke about it. In 2020, Scarlett Johansson married her boyfriend of several years, Colin Jost. Jost is most known on SNL for doing the weekend update. Every year in December, he trades jokes with his co-host, Che. This year, Che hit Jost hard, writing a series of racist comments for his co-host. (“Can I get my co-host canceled? Let’s get my co-host canceled.”) The real shocker came at the end of Colin Jost’s bit, where he announced that there would be a Frank Sinatra movie coming with the lead singer from Creed playing the starring role. Jost then read, “The good news is Sammy Davis, Jr. will be played by Scarlett Johansson!” It took SNL a long time to make that joke, but they made it count.

Clearly, Scarlett Johansson cannot escape these controversies that have shown up around her casting decisions. Hopefully, some of that has gotten through as she chooses movies going forward. Especially since the high notes from her career are moments that have stayed far away from those missteps.