Four Things I Want From Chester Tam’s AMBW Film

Gabrielle Union in Almost Christmas (Universal Pictures), Chester Tam (IMDB)

A few days ago, during one of my shifts for Shadow and Act, I reported on Gabrielle Union’s upcoming starring role in a new Screen Gems rom-com. However, the film is unique in Screen Gems’ repertoire; it’s a film about an interracial relationship between an Asian man and a Black woman, written by Chester Tam. The film is based on Tam’s real life relationship experiences. Currently no Asian actor has been cast yet as Union’s romantic interest.

Here’s more about the film from my article:

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Chester Tam will direct a rom-com for Screen Gems starring Gabrielle Union. The film, based on Tam’s own script, will be semi-autobiographical and follow “a newly single African-American woman who begins dating a recently divorced Asian-American man,” per the article’s description.

The logline, the article states, hasn’t been fully revealed, but will focus on “how a drunken one-night stand leads to a secret relationship that eventually becomes public, surprising both friends and family of the couple given that neither is typically the other’s type.”

Now, while everyone is gunning for John Cho to be cast as Union’s love interest in an effort to have Fastforward pt. 2I have some demands. Because while the plot sounds interesting, I’m hesitant to fully throw my weight behind the film since it starts out as a “drunken one-night stand.” Call me a Puritan, but does anything concrete happen from that kind of foundation? It’s because of this foundation that I’m curious as to what type of issues this film will tackle, as well as how tactful it will be.

In an effort to write this post, I needed to take in some points of view outside of myself, a Black woman. So I did some off-the-record discussions with guys who represent the other half of this conversation, Asian men. Also, thanks to JUST ADD COLOR friend Patrick Chen, I was hipped to The Slanted Screen by the late Jeff Adachi. The film is one I’d recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about the history of Asian men in Hollywood. While I’m sure there’s more that can be added to this article, I’m hoping that my research will make this article as balanced and informed as it can be.

Final disclaimer: the majority of this article is about men of East Asian specifically. Some of these issues can be applied to the struggles Southeast Asian men have in Hollywood, but for the most part, the issues I’m discussing here are about East Asian men in Hollywood, since Tam is writing from his experience a man of East Asian descent.

With that said, let’s get into what I’d like to see from Chester Tam’s film.

1. Contribute to normalizing interracial relationships in the media

Brandy and Paolo Montalban in the Wonderful World of Disney presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Disney)

First, let’s establish one thing: this film will not the end-all be-all of films about Asian men and Black women. I won’t make the mistake of believing that this film can and should hit on every issue and point of view relating to interracial relationships, specifically AMBW relationships. Thankfully, there are already other films and TV shows out there that contribute to the conversation. As I mentioned earlier, Union and Cho played a couple on Flashforward. Daniel Wu and Madeleine Mantock starred in Into the Badlands (until Mantock’s character died). The late Aaliyah and Jet Li were the romantic leads in Romeo Must Die. Brandy and Paolo Montalban starred in the TV movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The Indie world also has several examples, with Mississippi Masala starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce starring Chi Muoi Lo and Sanaa Lathan and Fakin’ Da Funk starring Dante Basco and Tatyana Ali. Patrick Chen, whom I’ve already mentioned above, directed his short, Underneath the Grey starring Michael Rosete and Tia DeShazor as two people in a relationship.

So what would I want Tam’s film to tackle specifically? For me, I’d love to see a film that is funny and entertaining. But I’d also love to see a film that intelligently and slyly makes commentary on the racial issues people have when it comes to interracial relationships. I don’t want to be beat over the head with commentary, because then the film would just feel like it’s preaching at me. But I also don’t want the film to be something the audience laughs at, rather than laugh with. I don’t want the jokes to backfire and inadvertently reinforce stereotypes that interracial relationships are abnormal, freakish occurrences.

Of course, you can’t control how an audience reacts to a film, but I worry about this for this film, particularly because of how the relationship is said to start–“a drunken one-night stand.” The very nature of that type of beginning gives off the feeling of impermanence, of having made a mistake. The relationship starts off abnormally, which, in my view, could make some double down on their belief that interracial relationships are abnormal occurrences that you have to be out of your mind to engage in.

It is important for films to tackle thorny aspects about race that do come up in some, if not all, interracial relationships. And, as was pointed out to me, perhaps Hollywood doesn’t feel that films about interracial relationships can stand up to an audience without including the usual talking points found in many films about interracial relationships. However, what I hope we get from this film instead is the message that interracial relationships should be thought of as normal facets of everyday life. Thankfully, more film and TV projects are beginning to do this; I just hope this film adds to the conversation that Arianna Davis describes for Refinery 29.

“Each [Hollywood] project is very different, but they share one thing in common: Depicting interracial love as something that simply exists — an everyday occurrence that is normal, not something that constantly needs to be debated, discussed, or fixated upon whenever it happens on screen,” she wrote. “It’s only taken about a century, but Hollywood is finally beginning to not just feature, but normalize love of all kinds. And in a society whose culture often reflects its entertainment, that’s incredibly important.”

If you are a person who is in an interracial relationship or has family and friends in interracial relationships, everything is fine. At the end of the day, if you take out societal hang-ups, interracial relationships are just relationships. Emotionally, you function the same in relationships with someone outside of your race just like how you’d function with someone within your race.

“Interracial relationships, as all relationships do, pose their fair share of problems. But the tensions that arise from loving cross-racially can be overcome with good communication and by settling down with a partner who shares your principles,” wrote Nadra Kareem Little for ThoughtCo. “Common ethics and morals arguably prove more significant than common racial backgrounds in determining a couple’s success.”

2. Address stereotypes and standards that hurt Black women and Asian men

Jet Li and Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die (Warner Bros.)

One way Tam’s film will score points with me is if it addresses something I haven’t seen on TV or film before–the fact that both Black women and Asian men have a barrage of sexual and relationship stereotypes to fight against. It’s because of these stereotypes that the infamous OKCupid survey registered Asian men and Black women as some of the least sought-out people among OKCupid users.

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“Overall, the results seem to reveal less about OKCupid and its users (in fact, [OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder] points out this pattern is common on other dating sites as well) than about society’s prevailing beauty standards and the ways they skew toward whiteness,” wrote Allison P. Davis for The Cut. “Rudder writes: “Beauty is a cultural idea as much as a physical one, and the standard is of course set by the dominant culture. I believe that’s what you see in the data here …. One interesting thing about OKCupid’s interface is that we allow people to select more than one race, so you can actually look at people who’ve combined ‘white’ with another racial description. Adding ‘whiteness’ always helps your rating! In fact it goes a long way toward undoing any bias against you.”

Interestingly enough, that same instance of adding “whiteness” or “exoticness” in general occurs in Hollywood as well. Take for instance films like Crazy Rich Asians, which starred Henry Golding, who is part white English and Malaysian. Or The Sun is Also a Star, starring Yara Shahidi, who is part African-American/Choctaw and part Iranian-American, and Charles Melton, who is part-Korean and part European-American.

The Eurocentric standards in Hollywood are used for multiple nefarious reasons, one being the idea that minority actors are more “palatable” if they look more “exotic” or have more Eurocentric features. The less you fit into the mold, the fewer roles you are seen as applicable for. The audience also reacts differently depending on how Eurocentric the leads look.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate Marie Helene Ngom wrote for the University of Maryland’s student news site Writers Block about how sections of The Walking Dead fanbase reacted negatively to Michonne and Rick’s relationship on-screen, with a lot of people commenting on Michonne’s race.

“The negative response to Richonne based on Gurira’s appearance drew my attention to other interracial couples on TV right now and I realized why these interracial couples were “palatable” for viewers,” Ngom wrote. “The trend of casting leading ladies and romantic interests for leading male characters has been the same since the beginning of cinematic history: a gorgeous white girl. And if a minority was cast as the female interest, it was because she was ‘white-looking’ enough meaning she looked mixed race or racially ambiguous.”

Ngom went on to give examples of shows with Eurocentric-leaning interracial couples, including The Flash and Daredevil.

“In The Flash, the protagonist Barry Allen, a white male, has a love interest, Iris West played by Candice Patton; a light skinned black woman with traditionally European features,” she wrote. “In Daredevil, the love interest of the white male protagonist is Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, also a pretty light-skinned black woman.”

Ngom also wrote how even when the male love interest is a minority, the female love interest is still along the lines of Eurocentric standards. “In Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Jessica’s love interest, is played by Mike Colter, a tall, dark, muscular black man,” she wrote.

“Most Americans do not still consider interracial relationships taboo but there is this unspoken rule that black women without European features are seen as not romantic enough or don’t exert enough sexuality,” she continued. “Not even when they are paired with black men.”

Angie Han also talked about Eurocentric standards in Hollywood. She focused on Crazy Rich Asians and how the discussions revolving around Golding blew up.

“When Henry Golding was cast, it sparked a debate over whether this half-white man was Asian enough, whether we were perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards by holding him up as the gold standard of Asian good looks,” she wrote. “…If Golding becomes Hollywood’s favorite Asian male love interest, where does that leave other Asian men?”

This isn’t to say that hapa men don’t deserve roles that accentuate their Asian heritage. Ditto for biracial/multiracial Black women: they deserve roles that accentuate their heritage as well. But the point here is this: Eurocentrism is the wedge that gives some actors an unfair advantage over others. It’s also a wedge in life: it prevents us from seeing someone’s individual beauty for trying to pigeon-hole them into a white box.

Amandla Stenberg addressed this with Variety.

“Something interest has happened with me and Yara and Zendaya–there is a level of accessibility of being biracial that has afforded us attention in a way that I don’t think would have been afforded to us otherwise,” said Stenberg. “Me and Yara and Zendaya are perceived in the same way, I guess, because we are lighter-skinned black girls and we fill this interesting place of being accessible to Hollywood and accessible to white people in a way that darker-skinned girls are not afforded the same privilege.”

Even if we take out Eurocentric beauty standards, there’s still the problem of stereotypes, many of which are regurgitated in film. Black women have been routinely typecast based on racist stereotypes such as being hypersexual, “sassy,” angry, manly, and aggressive. Usually the darker you are, the more you’re typecast. On the flip side, Asian men went from being lauded in film, such as Sessue Hayakawa, America’s first sex symbol, to being cast in regressive roles steeped in xenophobia. Instead of being cast as well-rounded men who are attractive to multiple races, they have been reduced to playing either bumbling fools, effeminate and emasculated nerds, or villains who are apt to take the country’s white women (similar to how Black men were thought of).

Thankfully, from where I’m sitting, it seems like there’s a change in how Black women are regarded in film. Thanks to actors like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira (who plays Michonne) and others, people are beginning to see darker-skinned Black women as something more than just a stereotype. But for Asian men, it seems like the tide is just beginning to start. Even though there can be a discussion about how racial makeup plays into Melton and Golding’s success, they are still helping push the conversation of the attractive Asian guy forward. Thankfully, there are other folks out there who are also pushing the conversation forward–actors like Jake Choi, Manny Jacinto, Chris Peng, Steven Yeun and others (including OGs like Sabu, Bruce Lee, James Shigeta and Sessue Hayakawa) are showing how false stereotypes about Asian men actually are.

With all of this said, I would love for Tam’s film to playfully, yet seriously, address how both Black women and Asian men suffer from being seen as the least desirable and how those stereotypes even block said groups from dating each other. Case in point: As The Slanted Screen revealed, “urban” audiences responded so poorly to Aaliyah and Jet Li kissing at the end of Romeo Must Die that the end was recut to show them merely hugging. The reason for the poor response was because of ingrained stereotypes. Maybe one reason the two characters in Tam’s film are surprised to be with each other is because they have been ingrained in the stereotypes about the other group. If this drunken night of passion can reveal some deeper truths, that would be fun to see.

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3. Introduce audiences to a new Asian leading male

Chris Peng in Crazy Rich Asians(Warner Bros.), Manny Jacinto in The Good Place (NBC), Daniel Wu in Into the Badlands (AMC)

As stated above, changing the narrative for interracial couples, particularly those with Asian men and/or Black women at the center, is important. Also important is addressing the stereotypes Black women and Asian men face in both the dating realm and Hollywood alike. Gabrielle Union, an actress who has grown more into her activism as she’s matured, is a fine choice for this film. But who could star as her love interest? I hope it’s someone we haven’t seen on the U.S. big screen before.

One awesome suggestion I was told was Daniel Wu. First of all, it’s not John Cho. No offense to Cho, but he can’t be shortlisted for every Asian male role in Hollywood. There are plenty of Asian guys out there, and Wu, as I wrote about earlier in this article, is a great contender. He’s someone who, like a lot of Asian male stars, had to go to Asia to make it big despite being born in America. While he has been able to make a name for himself in Chinese and Hong Kong cinema, he still hasn’t been able to fully spread his wings in America, even with his starring role on Into the Badlands. It would be fun to see what he can do with a comedy or dramedy role.

Another contender mentioned in my informal panel was Manny Jacinto. He’s already excelling in the comedic world on The Good Place, so why not allow him to try out his talents in a film setting? One thing to note is that Jacinto is Filipino and Tam is of Chinese/Hong Kong descent. Since the film is based on Tam’s life, how many instances will feed directly from his experiences as a Chinese-American, which are bound to be different than someone’s experiences as a Filipino-American? I don’t know. But the role is described as “Asian-American,” which could mean the character could be broad enough to be seen as an “everyman” of sorts. We just have to wait and see what Hollywood does.

One of my suggestions would be to give Chris Peng a chance. He was the best friend in Crazy Rich Asians, and for me, he was just as attractive as Golding, if not moreso. Since he is an Australian-based actor, I haven’t seen him in a lot stateside, but the oceanic boundary didn’t stop Hollywood from seeking out the Hemsworth brothers, did it? Hollywood needs to scope him out and give him a shot. I’m sure he could handle a role like this.

Whoever they pick, though, the role needs to go to someone who isn’t someone we’re used to seeing. We don’t need the usual suspects to take on this role; Hollywood needs to expand its acting pool of Asian actors, which will not only broaden the amount of representation, but will also mean that Hollywood will also expand how they view Asian actors in general. With more actors working in the industry, that will hopefully lead to more studios seeing actors of Asian descent as fully-formed people with important stories to tell, not just vessels for stereotypes.

4. No fetish, just love

Jay Park romances a woman in the music video for “Me Like Yuh” (BMI-Broadcast Music, Inc.)

Perhaps a lot of my worried reaction to the film is because I haven’t had a good experience watching some films revolving around interracial relationships.

Let me illustrate my irritation with some interracial relationship stories by talking about my experience watching Something New, also starring Sanaa Lathan. In this film, Lathan plays affluent Atlanta former debutante Kenya Denise McQueen. Kenya is now in her 20s to 30s, living the picture-perfect elite Black lifestyle. But when she starts dating her white gardener Brian (Simon Baker), her friends and family start judging her. She also starts judging herself; can she risk love for ostracism, or will her family and friendgroup finally accept her?

Sounds like a good story. But what irritated me as I watched it was that the “love” showcased was largely sexual. It just seemed like race-based lust with an actual relationship coming later. That turned me completely off. It made their relationship feel like a sordid fantasy, not two people finding true love. In short, the start of their relationship just seemed like a fetish.

Next, seeing how her family and friends turned their noses up at her for being with a white man, combined with Kenya and Brian arguing with each other about racial issues portrayed the standard “tragic” storyline element for interracial relationships in film.

The other interracial film I had problems with is Unbowed, a film set in the 1800s portraying a romance between a prim Black schoolteacher and her student, a Native American man who was sent to school by the government in order to be “civilized.”  I’m not trying to come down on an indie film that is attempting to tell a unique story that hasn’t been put on screen before. However, the film, starring Tembi Locke and Jay Tavare, just seemed, again, all about sex. There’s also the chance that the film actually reinforces the notion of the “wild” and “hyper-sexual” Native American (a similar stereotype of Black men as well). Some could certainly say it does, which goes back to what I wrote about Something New–it’s more about fetish rather than true love and discovery.

Even though these aren’t films, we can also throw in certain K-pop videos that utilize Black imagery in this conversation as well, like some of Jay Park’s videos. Park is an American-born independent rap star, and many of his music videos feature Black women as his love interests. Do I have a problem with how he showcases these women in his videos? I’m still not sure.

For me, there’s a whiff of fetish in the sense that many of the Black women represent the so-called “ideal” Black woman, which combines beauty standards and sexuality in an exaggerated way. Granted, a lot of rap music videos do this, regardless of who the rapper is. But wondering how Park views Black women is just a thought experiment I’ve been trying to engage in with no real conclusion in sight, aggravatingly enough.

This brings me back to what jump-started this entire article: two people having “a drunken one night stand” and then launching into an interracial relationship. Would a relationship with this kind of beginning involve two people indulging in fetish stereotypes in the first place? Would it involve people believing they had on “beer goggles” when choosing a partner for the night, as if a Black woman or Asian man couldn’t be attractive in the light of day? I don’t know. And I won’t know until the film comes out sometime next year.

But until then, I will have my fingers crossed that we get a nuanced, yet funny and entertaining, film. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I keeping my eyes on you, Tam. Please come through for me.