Where are all the Asians in Hollywood?
Whether it’s the struggle to find Aladdin and Jasmine for the live action version of the beloved Disney film or some downright questionable casting choices, Hollywood seems to be stuck in the 60s when it comes to representations of Asians on the big screen.
And this is what the 1960s looked like in Hollywood.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Mickey Rooney’s cringe-worthy portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese-American neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, is straight-up yellow face. He is a bucktoothed, bespectacled and clumsy caricature of an Asian man. It’s not a good look.
More than fifty years later, it may come as a surprise to hear that despite the significant social reforms in the United States, Hollywood still hasn’t evolved very far from overtly racist representations of Asians.
From Yellow Face to White Washing
Major Hollywood studios (Paramount, Marvel, MGM, etc.) can’t seem to get it right and it’s costing them dollars and good will.
1. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (2010) cast white actors to play three out of the four lead characters, all of whom appear to be Asian or Native American in the original Nickelodeon series. Noah Ringer was cast to play Aang, the title character, which caused a not-so-minor shitstorm with the show’s fiercely loyal following.
2. Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson, made the odd choice of casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who is a Himalayan high priest in the original Marvel comic. While the gender bending twist can be applauded, the choice of Swinton–a white woman of Scottish descent–created a significant amount of controversy given the curious deviation. Check out this epic email thread between comedian Margaret Cho and Swinton and this last comment from Cho, “Asian actors should play Asian roles.” Duh.
3. Ghost in the Shell (2017), directed by Rupert Sanders. Where to start with this one? The film is based on the Japanese manga series of the same name that emerged in 1989. The choice to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white actor of South African descent, as Major Motoko Kusanagi was widely criticized. In addition, the promoters ran a regrettable marketing campaign which ensued in hilarity and an epic roasting of the casting choice.
— VzA (@ValerieComplex) March 11, 2017
4. To the delight of fans young and old alike, Disney is planning to release a live action version of Mulan (2019). Even here, the casting of the lead character, Fa Mulan, a legendary female warrior from ancient China, who is, not surprisingly, of Chinese descent, seems to be a challenge.
Before casting calls even began, a petition was circulated asking Disney not to cast a white actor to play the lead role. The petition garnered over 100,000 signatures. Disney formally announced that an actor of Chinese descent would be playing the title character. It is a bittersweet victory to say that, in 2017, an Asian actor will finally be chosen to portray an unambiguously Asian historical figure in a big budget film.
The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell, and Dr. Strange have at least two things in common: (1) White actors were chosen to play characters of Asian descent, and (2) The movies tanked spectacularly at the box office.
Disney, please don’t drop the ball on Mulan.
A New Hope
Outside of major Hollywood studios, there are a number of folks doing it right, especially on the small screen. Representations of Asians in TV shows from traditional networks and online streaming sites are complex, funny, and modern. In many of these shows, the lead actor of Asian descent is also writing the script, which makes a huge difference. And importantly, these trailblazers show that Asian actors in lead roles are bankable. Ka-ching!
1. The Mindy Project (Hulu)
2. Master of None (Netflix)
3. Elementary (CBS)
4. Quantico (ABC)
5. Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
But there is still work to do. Hawaii Five-O (ABC) recently lost actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park because ABC refused to ensure pay equity amongst Kim and Park and their white co-stars, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. The series is also notorious for not having any significant Asian-Pacific Islander characters even though it is set entirely in Hawaii. The continuing misappropriation and whitewashing of Asian culture results in disappointments such as the lackluster adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Fist (Netflix).
A recent Twitter project called #StarringConstanceWu imagines the well-known Asian actor from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat in big budget film roles.
— Jigme (@JigmeUgen) May 12, 2016
— Shuhei Yamamoto (@shoehey) May 17, 2016
— Emily Mei Liu (@emilymeiliu) May 18, 2016
Let’s go out on a limb (not really though) and say that viewers are ready for their big and small screens to reflect the people that exist in real life. Hollywood, wake the f*ck up. It’s not the 60s anymore.