Wait, What’s the Problem? In Defense of “The Interview”.
Warning: SPOILERS FOR “THE INTERVIEW” ABOUND BELOW.
I read Maxine Builder’s article on “The Interview” because frankly I am in fact heavily invested in the depiction of Asians in media (surprise, I know). Where this investment comes from is a matter truly up for debate. Maybe it’s because I care about making the world into a better place (though honestly, if I was really serious about that maybe I’d spend less time writing articles and more time actually trying to make the world into a better place). Maybe it’s because I am Korean American (prerequisite minority card dropping). Or maybe it’s because I just like to read people arguing over small stuff when really there’s more important matters out there that we should care about (hey, it’s fun, and I do it myself all the time). Regardless, I started reading Maxine’s article because it was the kind of thing I enjoy doing (five parenthetical statements in a paragraph? Man, this guy needs to pick up a writing class).
Well, about halfway through the piece I found that, shockingly, I wasn’t agreeing with many of the points being made. Why was that? I mean, clearly I must have been somehow unknowingly brainwashed into the dangerous mindset that is “sucking-up-to-white-people” because such an opinion cannot possibly have been formed independently by me. And yet, again and again this feeling of disagreement continued. Hear me out.
“The Interview” has racist jokes. I think we should start with that. There really is no way of saying that it doesn’t, because boy does it have racist jokes. Racist jokes galore. And if racist jokes aren’t your cup of tea, then I can’t really argue with you. But is “The Interview” racist? I don’t think so.
Having racist jokes in your film does not make the film racist, just like when Louis CK or Chris Rock make a racist joke they aren’t necessarily racist either (they might, but I’ll leave that sort of inquiry for TMZ). Rather, racism is more of a matter of ideals. What sort of ideals does someone or something make, and in what sort of context are these ideals being made? The context is supremely important. I bring up Louis CK and Chris Rock because they are comedians, and in the genre of comedy there is a very thin line between offensively funny and downright offensive. Again, if you think that any racist joke regardless of context is offensive, there’s nothing I can do for you.
So let’s look at the context of “The Interview” then, shall we? It’s a comedy, first and foremost, not a home video tape of the Ku Klux Klan making racial jokes and slurs in a replica of Hitler’s basement. Might sound ridiculous, sure, but the context of its production is actually pretty important. Also, and far more importantly, James Franco’s character is an idiot. He’s a complete and utterly hopeless idiot. He’s not the smart hero we’re supposed to look up to, or the charming, intelligent leading man we want our kids to be when they grow up. He’s an idiot. So when he does idiot things, like ending a speech addressed towards North Koreans with “Konichiwa”, we all know he makes that ignorant mistake because he’s an idiot (and for those of you idiots who don’t know what that mistake is, Konichiwa is a Japanese expression. Also, North Koreans hate the Japanese). Let me say that one more time, just in case you didn’t get it. He’s an idiot. James Franco is playing a character that clearly is not aware of respecting cultural differences. Though he is not maliciously racist, his ignorance is so great that he cannot help but express himself as such. Are we to excuse him for such a behavior? Yes, because it’s a fucking movie about a fictional idiot who somehow manages to score an interview with the dictator of North Korea. The day we start censoring characters, dialogue, and ideas in film because they might somehow offend people is the day I stop watching movies (this is the part where I subtlety mention The First Amendment in defense of comedy and about half of the liberal readers tune out). Thesis statement: James Franco’s character is an idiot.
What also confused me were complaints about how all the North Korean characters in the film had ridiculous and offensive accents when they spoke in English. Well shit, I too was expecting “perfect” American accents when they spoke in a language that clearly wasn’t their mother tongue (no, I wasn’t). Truth is, that’s how many people of Asian background sound when they speak English as a Second Language. Don’t believe me? Get out of your room and go talk to the grandparents of your Asian friend (I know you have one, he/she is the one right next to your one black friend). If they do speak English, it’s gonna sound a lot like it did in “The Interview”. And you know what? Outside of a couple of small jokes about the accents, the entirety of the film treated the North Koreans who spoke English with the amount of respect and power they deserved. So kudos.
Also, the way the film treated it’s leading female Asian character, played by Diana Bang, was surprisingly respectable. Playing with the standard tropes and cliches of “The Dragon Lady”, the character first appeared to be an empty, one-dimensional character who only cares about sex (kinda like Franco’s character, I guess), until it’s revealed that she is a smart, socially-conscious woman willing to risk her life and position to make better the lives of the people of her country. In the end of the film, she even rejects fleeing North Korea to stay behind and rebuild her country. Let me repeat that in more open terms. She gives up an American life with a ridiculously white man to stay behind in a broken Asian country to rebuild her government and serve her people. I sincerely doubt either of Franco’s or Rogen’s characters would have made the same decision if they were in her shoes and given similar circumstances. Out of the three, she is the one who makes the most morally right decisions and sets the needs of the greater good over the personal wants of herself. And for anyone who wants to give her shit for wanting to have sex, Franco’s and Rogen’s characters spend the entire runtime frequently pursuing and/or engaging in that horribly forbidden act as well, and I don’t see you giving them shit for that (though if you’re giving her shit for wanting to have sex with Rogen specifically, I can’t argue with you).
Let’s be honest here. The only thing “cringe-worthy” in “The Interview” is that it doesn’t fully live up to its hype. It could have been more funny. It also could have been way less funny. It could have been a way more biting political satire on both the geopolitical structures of Asia, the foreign policies of America, and America’s obsession with trivial things in the media (Exhibit A: this joke of an essay). And at times there are moments in the film where such awareness shines through. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Racism, however, is not one of the film’s failures. Yes, I do agree that Asian characters in films frequently get the shaft end when it comes to development and stereotypes. Yes, there definitely needs to be a far better representation of Asians in film. But here’s the thing. Asians do not need a single, perfect representation in film (despite the fact that we are obviously perfect). What they need, what we need, is a far more diverse and wider representation. We need to see Asian characters in both heroic roles and villainous roles, leading roles and secondary roles, dramatic roles and comedic roles. The problem with Asian representation in media is not that Hollywood made “The Interview”, it’s that Hollywood hasn’t made films other than “The Interview” for us to turn to.