Remember when Aaliyah and Jet Li fell in love in ‘Romeo Must Die’?
I was 10 years old when “Romeo Must Die” blew my young, impressionable mind. The film brought to life one of the most unlikely scenarios in the history of Hollywood: the story of an Asian man and a black woman who fall in love. Though it was no Oscar-winning performance, the film left two monumental impressions on a first-generation Chinese kid born and raised in the U.S.:
- That it’s possible in this country for Asians to play non-villainous lead roles who are also romantic interests.
- That seeing Asian and black people on screen is possible and might, one day, be normal.
Sixteen years later, Chris Rock hosted the 88th Academy Awards and made racist Asian jokes at the expense of three clueless children in front of a massive international audience. As writer Ranier Maningding put it: “Let’s talk about how three little Asian kids went up on stage in front of thousands of Hollywood millionaires and were laughed AT (not with) BECAUSE of their race.”
The progress we’ve made.
Reinforcing the stereotypes that have kept yellow people under the bamboo ceiling and invisible in American society seems pretty ironic for a man who spent much of the evening chewing out Hollywood for its lack of black representation. No, it’s not Chris Rock’s job to uplift and empower Asian-Americans (or any other minority, for that matter). But to insult them while demanding equal opportunities for other underrepresented groups is hypocritical and counterproductive.
The entertainment industry’s exclusion and misrepresentation of Asians is not unique to Chris Rock, however. In fact, he’s just regurgitating the sentiments of an already f**ked-up industry, one that still views Asian-Americans as one-dimensional foreigners, regardless of what language they speak and where they grew up. In case you didn’t know:
- No Asian woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Actress. And only one Asian woman has ever been nominated for that category. That was over 80 years ago.
- SNL, which has been running for 40 years, has never had an Asian cast member. There have only been two Asian hosts, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu, both 16 years ago.
- In 2015, only 1% of lead roles in Hollywood were given to Asian actors.
- Even the great Tina Fey has a show on Netflix where an Asian actor plays a caricature of his racial stereotype, jarring fake accent and self-deprecation included.
So what are the implications of growing up in a society where the only time you see your own people portrayed in TV and film is when they’re being mocked? A society that continuously casts white actors in Asian roles? A society that laughs at three kids on national TV for being just like you: yellow and misrepresented? It signals that we do not have a place in American society, no matter how American we may be, and that we are still perceived as the “other” — so much so that all 18 million Asians living in the United States were overlooked for the role of a samurai, but somehow, Tom Cruise was not.
So directors, producers, filmmakers, I challenge you to try something revolutionary this 2016: cast an Asian actor or actress as the lead role in your film, a role that has nothing to do with race or martial arts or accountants. Undo the hot mess created by white Hollywood and tasteless comedians and inspire young people to dream that a hero can, in fact, come in any shape, gender or color.
A blockbuster in 2016 with a black female lead and an Asian male lead. Now that’s some shit to tweet about.