Synopsis (ABC): A diverse group of recruits has arrived at the FBI Quantico Base for training. They are the best, the brightest and the most vetted, so it seems impossible that one of them is suspected of masterminding the biggest attack on New York City since 9/11.
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Photo credit: Annie Edmonds
Any S.W.A.T. fans here? If you’re a S.W.A.T. regular viewer, then you already know actor David Lim. Lim plays Victor Tan, a new officer who earned his stripes in the Hollywood Division before moving to the LAPD and Metro S.W.A.T. team.
Lim’s talents lie beyond just acting. Before becoming a member of the S.W.A.T. team, Lim was signed to Ford Models and moved to L.A. to pursue both modeling and acting. Lim has appeared in several commercials for Gillette, McDonald’s, Bud Light, Apple, and Dave and Buster’s. He’s also been a part of ABC’s Quantico playing new CIA recruit Sebastian Chen.
You want to get in shape like Lim? He’s got you covered with the perfect squat you can add to your leg day exercises.
Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.
JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.
This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:
- Whiteness as the default
- The pain of exoticism
- The #OscarsSoWhite effect and the Academy
- What Hollywood’s doing right and wrong
- What audiences need to know
Whiteness as the default
Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.
The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.
“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”
Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”
“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”
“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.
“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”
“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”
Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”
Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”
Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”
“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience. It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries. With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”
“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”
Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”
Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”
“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”
JUST ADD COLOR has discussed the majesty of Mr. Robot and Into the Badlands and the talents of the shows’ leading men, Rami Malek and Daniel Wu. But don’t think we’ve forgotten another breakout star from 2015. Today’s salute goes to Yasmine Al Massri, who plays Nimah and Raina Amin on ABC’s Quantico.
Why you should focus on Al Massri: Quantico is a groundbreaking show already because it has the first South Asian lead of an American drama, Bollywood/international star Priyanka Chopra. But the show also breaks ground in having a Muslim, Middle Eastern character who isn’t a stereotype. She’s her own person, and her religion is something that is a part of her (like how Christianity is a part of a lot of people in America), but doesn’t define her.
Al Massri portrays two characters that are challenging mainstream viewers how they view Middle Easterners and Muslims. The rhetoric America has been battling for years, but this year in particular, is that Muslims and Middle Easterners are terrorists bent on destroying American values. But Nimah and Raina are characters that fly in the face of that stereotype. They are Muslim, Middle Eastern women who not only love America, but were (spoilers) actively working to stop a terrorist cell from hurting innocents. Of course, because they are hijab-wearing Muslim women, the Quantico recruits (including Chopra’s character Alex Parrish) wrongly believe they are the terrorists (until they’re proven wrong, of course.)
Al Massri discusses the double-standard with TV Guide. “[The twins] think of Alex as one of their own. To have Alex doubt us, it’s out of line. How can you doubt us? We are in this together,” said Al Massri about having Alex, one of the three brown women in the recruit class, doubt Nimah and Raina. “That’s the challlenge of the twins being suspects. I get so may messages from fans now saying, “Yeah, we know the Muslims are gonna be the terrorists like usual.” I’m so happy that people will now see that Nimah and Raina were on an underocver mission that actually serves and protects the United States of America.”
By having Nimah and Raina on television, hopefully audience members start to better humanize Americans of Middle Eastern descent and Muslims within their minds, because scapegoating leads to dire consequences, such as the murders of three North Carolinian students who happened to be Muslim. This event happened three days after Al Massri received her script, according to the New York Times. “And suddenly where I came from made sense,” she told the Times. “To be a veiled Muslim woman on screen is a very scary minefield for me.” But a role like this was a challenge Al Massri was ready to take. “I am a contradiction myself,” she said. “I’m always looking for something that scares me, because when I’m not scared I’m not stimulated.”
What do you think about Al Massri and her roles on Quantico? Give your opinions below!
|Want to read more about Into the Badlands and Mr. Robot? Read the inaugural issue of COLOR BLOCK Magazine!|
2015 saw a ton of explosive shows vie for our attention, from the new seasons of How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and Empire, to the new faces on rookie shows like Rosewood, Quantico, and The Grinder (or, in The Grinder‘s case, familiar faces we haven’t seen in a while). But if there were two new shows that captured the imagination more in 2015, they would have to be Mr. Robot and Into the Badlands.
I don’t know why I’ve been putting off this post about The Martian for so long. I guess it might be because, even though I run a site about race and culture in entertainment, I get fatigued from having to write the same story over and over when it seems like Hollywood will never learn. Also, I didn’t feel like writing about Matt Damon again, even on the most ironic level (because the irony is that even though he’s not involved directly in the backlash The Martian faces, he has been embroiled in racial entertainment politics already, in which, as he said to The Hollywood Reporter after watching the now infamous episode featuring the heated exchange between him and Effie Brown, he made himself “look like an an asshole”). But I have to write about this, and you’ll see why.
Edited to reflect more accuracy with ratings numbers
I’ve been keeping tabs on Sleepy Hollow‘s ratings this season, and even though we’re only three episodes into the season, I think it’s time to start looking at things objectively instead of subjectively. Sleepy Hollow is facing some tough times when it comes to ratings, and if support doesn’t come soon from viewership, the tough times are going to get even worse.
Earlier this year, I put out my COLOR recap list, which included lots of things. But I honestly underestimated the sheer amount of recapping I’d have to do this year, coupled with the amount of TV work I do for other companies. (I work many different jobs aside from running this site.) I’ve found myself literally not having a lot of time to do anything except watch TV and write, and I can’t keep this up until January. So here’s the revised list, with reasoning (since I’m sure there are fans of the shows that will get cut from the recap list):
One thing I’d been thinking about this fall TV season is that along with there being tons of women of color paired with white men characters, there have also been a ton of white characters who are “special” in some way. Characters like Sleepy Hollow‘s Ichabod Crane, Supergirl (who is white-adjacent since she passes), The Player’s Alex Kane, Limitless’ Brian Finch, Minority Report‘s Dash and Blindspot‘s Jane Doe all have something that makes them stand out from the crowd. I have two theories as to why we’ve seen the rise of the Special, yet Marginalized White Lead, and why we might see more of this type of character for a while.