Asian Americans in Film and Television: 2020 Year in Review
By Anika Raju
This year, we saw a significant amount of Asian American representation in film and television despite limitations in production placed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is a list of television shows and films released in 2020 which feature Asian Americans in prominent roles. We hope increased representation and more diverse stories become normalized in 2021 and the years to come.
New in 2020
1. All My Life
This romantic drama film features Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. as real-life couple Jennifer Carter and Solomon Chau. Happily engaged, the couple’s world is shaken when they learn that Solomon has liver cancer. Racing against the clock, Jennifer and Solomon live out their dream wedding with the help of their friends and family.
2. Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens
Created by Awkwafina and Teresa Hsiao, this comedy television series follows Nora (Awkwafina) as she attempts to navigate her twenties while living with her father and her grandmother. The fictional series is inspired by Awkwafina’s real-life experience of being raised by her father and grandmother in Queens.
3. The Baby-Sitters Club
The 2020 television adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s children’s book series The Baby-Sitters Club released on Netflix over the summer. The show follows five middle schoolers who start a babysitting business. Despite being written in the ’80s and ’90s, the series is notable for having a Japanese American main character named Claudia Kishi, who is played by Momona Tamada in this television adaptation.
4. The Half of It
Netflix teen film The Half of It follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) through her senior year of high school as she navigates her identity as a Chinese American immigrant and as an LGBTQ+ individual. Written and directed by Alice Wu, a queer, Asian American woman, the film is groundbreaking for its representation both in front of and behind the camera.
5. The House of Ho
This reality television series centers around the Ho Family — a wealthy Vietnamese family in Houston, Texas. The show stands out in the reality television space for its focus on an Asian American family.
6. Kal Penn Approves This Message
To encourage young people to become civically engaged, Kal Penn released this six-episode miniseries ahead of the 2020 general election. Having worked both in film and television and in the Obama White House, Penn brings a unique perspective to the show, which he supplements by featuring special guests like Hillary Clinton, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Dolores Huerta.
Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-Ri, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, and Youn Yuh-jung, this drama film follows a Korean American family that moves from California to a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s to achieve their interpretation of the American Dream. When the grandmother comes to live with them, the dynamics of the family change and the story explores what it means to be a family.
8. Never Have I Ever
Created by Indian American powerhouse Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, Never Have I Ever is the first coming-of-age television show in the United States to feature a South Asian lead. The story follows 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she navigates high school following the death of her father. The show addresses themes like grief, identity, and belonging.
9. Over the Moon
Over the Moon is one of Netflix’s latest children’s animated films. The story borrows from Chinese mythology and follows a girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) as she attempts to prove that the Moon Goddess Chang’e is real. Through her adventures on the moon, Fei Fei learns how to grapple with the death of her mother as well as accept change and new beginnings.
Written and directed by Alan Yang, Tigertail tells the story of a Taiwanese man named Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) who reflects on his childhood and his journey to America while attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Christine Ko). The film captures the struggles of immigrants and their attempts to achieve the American Dream.
What we got more of in 2020
1. Killing Eve, Season 3
British television series Killing Eve follows a British intelligence investigator named Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) as she attempts to capture an assassin named Villanelle. Along with casting an Asian American in the lead role, the show is notable for having female head writers.
2. PEN15, Season 2, Part 1
PEN15 is a cringe comedy series starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who play fictionalized, 13-year-old versions of themselves. The series explores the trials and tribulations of middle school through an unfiltered lens, with actual middle school-aged children cast in the supporting roles. Through the experiences of Maya, the show captures what it’s like navigating middle school with an Asian American identity.
3. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is the second installment in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s book trilogy. The film follows Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) as she navigates a love triangle involving her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky and her childhood crush John Ambrose McClaren. The To All the Boys series pays homage to Lara Jean’s Korean heritage on her late mother’s side by referencing Korean traditions and customs.
Shannon Lee and Justin Lin executive-produced action-drama Warrior — a television series based on an original concept by Bruce Lee. The series is set in the late 1870s and follows martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who immigrates from China to San Francisco to find his missing sister but ends up caught in the city’s Tong Wars.
What we said goodbye to in 2020
- Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
After six seasons on Netflix and widespread critical acclaim, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj said goodbye to its fans this year. Hosted by actor, comedian, and political commentator Hasan Minhaj, Patriot Act was the first American talk show hosted by an Indian American. The show was known for bringing nuance to the political landscape and challenging the status quo and included an episode on the Asian American vote and affirmative action.
2. Fresh Off the Boat
Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, Fresh Off the Boat was a comedy series with a six-season run that told the story of the Huangs– a Taiwanese American family that moves from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to predominantly white Orlando, Florida in the 1990s. Starring prominent Asian Americans like Randall Park and Constance Wu and staffed with writers like Ali Wong, the show featured Asian American representation in front of the camera, in the writers’ room, and at various levels of production. It was the first mainstream Asian American television show since All-American Girl, which aired in 1994.
New for the Holidays
1. A Sugar and Spice Holiday
This holiday romcom follows an architect named Suzy (Jacky Lai) who returns to her hometown for the holidays and enters a gingerbread house competition. She reunites with her high school classmate Billy (Tony Giroux), who has also entered the competition. The film has picked up a significant amount of buzz this holiday season for featuring an almost entirely Asian cast.
2. The Christmas Bow
The Christmas Bow stars Korean American violinist Lucia Micarelli as Kate, a musician whose dreams are put on hold when she is injured in an accident. While recovering at home, she reconnects with an old family friend named Patrick who helps her heal and find some positivity during the holidays.
3. The Christmas Ring
This Christmas story follows a reporter named Kendra Adams (Nazneen Contractor) who attempts to uncover the history behind an antique engagement ring with the help of the ring owner’s grandson. The Christmas Ring is notable for casting an actress of South Asian descent in the lead role.
4. Dash & Lily
This eight-episode series was adapted from David Levithan and Rachel Cohn Dash’s book Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Set in New York City, the story follows teenagers Dash and Lily (Austin Abrams and Midori Francis) who fall in love by communicating through a notebook during the holidays. Through Lily, who is half Japanese, the series touches on the experiences of Asian Americans by including Japanese traditions and customs.
Anika Raju is the Programs and Executive Assistant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC is an advocate for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans in the media. Follow this blog for future reviews!