2016 is a banner year for Asian characters, so where are the Asian actors?
We’ve just past the halfway mark of 2016 and it’s been a banner year for Asian representation in Hollywood. From Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost In The Shell, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Great Wall.
Yep 2016 has given Asian Americans more occasions to face-palm than 2008 when our parents wouldn’t stop showing us videos of China rehearsing for the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies. (“We get it, they’re disciplined. Stop showing me this, it’s very problematic”)
I could go on and on about the perils of whitewashing these specific roles but there are more then enough thinkpieces and youtube rants and twitter wars that will argue that Japanese people love white faces, or The Ancient One was a very racist character in the comics so casting a white lady is ok, or Matt Damon brings in big bucks. And you will quiver at how completely ignorant and unempathetic humans truly can be. Or if you’re lazy, you could go watch a 5:45 minute video by a white man who simultaneously mansplains and whitesplains it all for you. You know, just in case you’re an alien from Neptune who has never watch a Hollywood Blockbuster before.
No instead I’d like to focus on the response. Let’s get positive for a second before I shatter your dreams.
The intense backlash has brought out some Asian voices that aren’t normally given the spotlight. Most notably Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu, who most recently, criticized the casting of Matt Damon in Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. She wrote, “it’s about pointing out the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength. When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes, YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes dude, you fucking ARE. Whether you intend to or not.” It’s pretty glorious and sums up the greater problem of whitewashing, that of reinforcing an age old imperial notion that white people are the saviours. Snaps for Constance.
The New York Times published an article highlighting issues that Asian-American actors faced. Not only did we get some truly badass shots of Daniel Dae Kim, BD Wong, Aziz Ansari, and Constance Wu herself, we were reminded once again that the game has always been two steps forward, one step back. Sure, now there’s Fresh Off The Boat and Master Of None and The Mindy Project and Priyanka Chopra on Quantico but how far have we really come?
Let’s take big budget comedies? The only Asian face you’re ever going to see is Randall Park. Trainwreck, The Night Before, Sex Tape, Neighbors, and the upcoming Office Christmas Party. Yes, Randall’s got the market for comedies ticking off their “We got ourselves an Asian” box covered. And every time I see those eyebrows and that smile, I sit forward a little more to enjoy the ten seconds he’s sure to have before they cut to a white lady. You go Randall!
Now, I take you to a clip from Master Of None that explores the crux of the problem. You won’t find it online except as the carefully selected clip included in Alan Yang’s The Hollywood Reporter Roundtable interview. The co-creator was asked about the response to Master Of None and this clip accompanied with his response. Jump to 0:49 to see
So what happened after this year’s Oscars and that now-infamous bomb of a joke that involved three Asian-American children dressed in suits holding briefcases pretending to be accountants. They stood there looking anywhere from terrified to absolutely bewildered as Chris Rock told a joke he knew would bomb. Even in his delivery, he knew it wasn’t gonna go over well. And he still told it!
And it took 25 prominent Asian Academy members — let’s go over that again TWENTY-FIVE — in a letter sent to the Academy to elicit an apology. And it didn’t come from an individual, it certainly didn’t come from Chris Rock, it came from an Academy spokesperson who said, “The Academy appreciates the concerns stated, and regrets that any aspect of the Oscar telecast was offensive. We are committed to doing our best to ensure that material in future shows be more culturally sensitive.”
Yes we’ve heard this before. Just look to Marvel’s response claiming a commitment to diversity while simultaneously defending the casting of Tilda Swinton, or the C. Robert Cargill, Doctor Strange writer, blaming China for this quandary that they’ve supposedly been put in. Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, though, had a more considered response. But in this listening and learning, what actions have they taken?
So what’s the point, huh? As Aziz said, “no one gets that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff.” So what’s the point? BD Wong is quoted in The New York Times article as saying, “There’s an age-old stereotype notion that Asian-American people don’t speak up…[but] we’re really getting into people’s faces about that.”
But are they listening? I posted an article about Ghost In The Shell and Doctor Strange on my Facebook page. I was met with some support but mostly it was a regurgitation of all the excuses. My favourite one connects to Doctor Strange, comic book nerds — excuse me, white comic book fans — are so quick to defend racist material, not realizing that if they were racist in the first place…maybe we don’t need another iteration of it? Or maybe any instance of racism in old comics should be given the Black Panther treatment. Hand that thing over to two men (Ta-Nehesi Coats and Ryan Coogler) who will for damn sure create a Black Panther befitting of that name.
But look how long that took. Look how long it took for Black people to take control of their stories in Hollywood. So far, I’ve taken a deeper look into whitewashing as it affects East Asians, looking into racist depictions of Indian and South Asian people or Arab people (Gods of Egypt, Exodus, etc.)…yeah that would take decades to explain. So I’ll just leave you with this clip from The Love Guru
Doctor Strange is the first of this wave of films to be released (I’m not going to tell you when, you can look that up yourself. They’ve gotten enough press) and we’ll see if the wonders of Marvel can distract audiences enough. We’ll have to see if fanboys and fangirls will come out to see Scarlett Johansson portray one of the most famous manga characters. We’ll have to see if CGI dragons are enough to make Matt Damon’s Britishy/American-doing-Shakespeare sounding accent credible. The only thing that seems to speak is box office success. If these three films do well…at least we’ll have Constance Wu’s twitter page to keep us warm at night.