media literacy

Hadji Demystified: Monique Revisits Michael Benyaer Interview

The first in a series of articles for: hadji

Between 2009 and 2010, I wrote extensively about Hadji Singh from The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest in a series of posts called “Hadji Demystified.” Why “demystified”? Because the kid Hadji from the ’60s might have been spectacularly acted, but the character itself was filled with tropes such as Hadji somehow knowing magic, thereby making him mystical. The mystical aspect of Hadji bleeds into popular tropes Hollywood has about Indian characters, and non-white people in general; that we’re somehow full of wisdom, magical (either literally or in terms of the value the characters bring to white characters), and are exotic specimens, not actual human beings.

When I fan out about characters, I take it seriously, and usually that means learning everything about them and their backgrounds. I did such with both the kid version of Hadji and the teenage version from Real Adventures. The teenage version affected me even more because while kid Hadji was the only person I could identify with (he was the only non-white face, the only person who ever shot down Jonny’s notions of following the danger, etc.), teenage Hadji–and the treatment his character received from the character development team–gave me a different perspective entirely.

Through my love for Hadji, I’d put it upon myself to learn more about Indian cultures and what was right and wrong about Indian representations in America. As I found out, there was a lot that could be questioned about Season Two Hadji (the change in voice actors, the heavy reliance on stereotypes and tropes, the fact that Hadji became a maharajah even though maharajahs had stopped being in power in Bangalore long before, etc.), but Season One Hadji was a character that was meant to positively represent not just Hadji as a fleshed-out character (for instance, the introduction of his last name and his devotion to Sikhism), but an aspect of the immigrant experience.

To use two quotes I used ad nauseum while writing my Hadji posts:

  • What was the inspiration for Hadji? Was he a paradigm of Eastern thought, or based on a friend in that hemisphere of the world?

I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage – quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps – but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in … oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background – brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny – and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really ‘got’ what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to ‘hear’ Hadji’s voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That’s why we went for some rather ‘out there’ casting – and that’s why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It’s pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.

JQ:TRA’s Peter Lawrence on re-developing Hadji’s character for the series

“[he] is one of the few roles for an ethnic actor that is not a bad guy. I mean, how many East Indian heroes have been on television? Hadji is for the sensitive kids out there. He is the outsider in all of us.”

–Michael Benyaer (Season One Hadji) on why he loved playing Hadji for the series

The latter quote by Benyaer made it imperative for me to get his point of view on playing Hadji during the first season of Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and how it felt playing a character that had been thoughtfully approached by the development team. All it took was one simple email and some great timing for me to get my interview (I still remember that Benyaer said it was serendipitous that I’d email him right around the time he’d actually read some of my Hadji-centric writing.)

Thus ensued the following interview. We talked about acting, of course, but we also discussed the state of diversity in 2010. At that point, the type of movement on diversity we’re seeing now was just a pipe dream. But while there’s been a lot of movement, there’s still more that can be done; Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project can’t be the only two holding it down for our American Desi friends. In any event, check out the interview.


I’ve been writing about Hadji for a while, just giving my viewpoints on how Hadji is important to the entire conversation of race and culture on television, learning about different religions, etc. But now you don’t have to take just my word for it. Take it from Hadji’s own voice.

Michael Benyaer, film and TV actor, got his start in acting straight out of high school, appearing in an episode of 21 Jump Street that was filmed in his native Vancouver, B.C. Soon after, he landed his first voice acting role as Ken in Barbie and the Rockers, which garnered him quite a bit of press. “I guess people thought it was pretty funny that Canadians were voicing Barbie and Ken,” he said. He later landed roles on G.I. Joe and Reboot.

When he was cast as Bob on Reboot, Benyaer was able to add his own experiences to the character. “As the role progressed, they wrote more to what I was doing. I was able to help create the character. It was exciting to be able to help create a character.” Part of how he identified with Bob was through his favorite cartoon character, Spider-Man. “It was nice to be able to play a hero who was fallible; he was like Spider-Man/Peter Parker, someone who was thrust into his job and learning to cope with it.”

When he moved to California, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the job that opened him up to Hollywood. Through landing the role of Hadji for season one of Real Adventures, he was able to relive part of his childhood while befriending and learning from veteran actors. “It was very ironic to think that I watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a kid and that later I’d be working where they made those cartoons,” he said. “I got to meet Frank Welker [long-time voice actor who was voicing Jonny’s dog Bandit], George Segal [long-time movie and TV actor, voice of Dr. Quest] and Robert Patrick [movie actor best known for Terminator 2, voice of Race Bannon]; I’d have lunch with them every week, and just pick their brains.”

However, through the casting for Real Adventures, as well as casting for live-action jobs, Benyaer said something that mirrors what a lot of ethnic actors have to contend with. “Hollywood is…Hollywood is very specific,” he said. “Hollywood casts roles based on what you look like.”

Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.
Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.

During his tryouts for Hadji, he was aware of Indian stereotypes that were still in play. “There were actors who were using this accent like Apu [from The Simpsons], and I was like, ‘No, that’s offensive!’” Also, said Benyaer, many people in Hollywood do not differentiate between accents that originate from India and the Middle East. “To them it’s all the same,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a Pakistani accent,’ [or] ‘No, that’s an Israeli accent.’”

It was revolutionary, said Benyaer, that Hadji was created for the ‘60s version of Jonny Quest. “He was an early character of color that was not black or Hispanic on TV,” he said. To further push a positive portrayal of brown-skinned character on TV, Benyaer set out to bring a touch of class. “I based [Hadji’s accent] on Gandhi—someone who’s worldly with traces of a British education. I wanted to give [the role] respect. I wanted to give it some sort of class. And Peter Lawrence, the producer, responded to that. I was also allowed to add some understated humor to the character.”

Benyaer said that Hadji is very important in the conversation about race and culture being represented in entertainment. “He is the touchstone of Indian chracters,” Benyaer said. “During the ‘90s, there was no one [of Indian ancestry] on television. There was Apu, but that’s it. In 2010, there’s [Mohinder from Heroes, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy], The Cape, [Adhir Kaylan from Aliens in America and Rules of Engagement], and Harold and Kumar. Slumdog Millionaire was the movie that made everyone think of making Indian characters, and Hadji was the precursor of this.”

It is important that everyone gets represented in entertainment. “I have Asian American or Asian Canadian friends, and I ask them [about what cartoon characters they liked], and they always remember the people that looked like them in the cartoons,” he said. “Indians in Britain are more like how African Americans are here in America; Indians have a lot of representation on television. In Canada, Indians have supporting roles. It’s just in America where that’s not the case.”

As far as how ethnicities should be represented today, Benyaer is hopeful that the representations of ethnicities spans beyond more than just the character’s color or accent. “I think what we should see now are people of color that don’t have the accent of their ethnicity, like a character like Hadji with an American accent.” But, he is also glad that the number of ethnic characters on television have increased. “The quote that I said back in 1996 [about Hadji being one of few minority characters that wasn’t the bad guy]—fourteen years later, I’m glad it’s not true.”♦

Redefining “Archie”: Jughead’s Evolution as a Counterculture Icon

The second in a series of articles for: 2

Back in the late ’00s, I wrote a ton on Jughead, my favorite Archie Comics character. The main reason I identify with him so much is because he’s the “weird” one; to quote one of the many Poirot episodes out there, Jughead’s of the world, but he’s not in the world. In other words, he can see the strings behind everything going on in his environment, yet doesn’t desire to become a part of it, nor can his friends ever truly understand his lack of desire to lose himself in the day-to-day minutae of life. Whereas Archie, Betty, and Veronica are constantly embroiled in pettiness, Jughead is usually the one with the subtle, existential view on things.

The main body of the article I’m presenting now is one of those early Jughead articles. It’s focusing on Jughead as Riverdale’s representative of American counterculture, both through his personality and, in particularly, through his clothing and hair styles. Even though all of the characters go through changes over the years, Jughead is the only character who became repurposed by Archie Comics as a window into America’s constantly evolving counterculture. Whereas Archie is “America’s Favorite Teenager,” Jughead is “America’s Favorite Outcast.”


Whether he knew it or not, John L. Goldwater, publisher and editor of Archie Comics, was a genius to have created such an influential character like Forsythe Pendleton Jones III, or, as we know him, Jughead. Actually, I think he was a bit ahead of his time. To many (and probably to Goldwater), Jughead is quirky-someone who follows the beat of their own drummer, in the cliché sense. But Jughead’s off-center personality and nonconformist aesthetic has been reflected in the decades after his first appearance in 1941.

Some background on the creation of Jughead, first. Goldwater was quoted as saying that his high-school friend, named Archie, was part of the inspiration for the character Archie. In turn, Goldwater himself was the inspiration for Jughead. “I felt like Jughead to him,” he said about their days at the New York Teachers’ Training School. “I was a very loyal friend.” It would seem that Goldwater brought a lot more to Jughead’s personality than just his loyalty; Goldwater was an orphan who hitchhiked westward during the Depression, finding work. This rough lifestyle Goldwater led in his earlier years was sure to have supplied Jughead with his loner, self-sufficient, and non-conformist sensibilities and a personality more unique than the other Archie characters.

Jughead in the 1950s-early 70s: Beatnik

Through most of the ‘40s, Jughead was the standard slacker who provided the snappiest comebacks in stories-lines that usually weren’t reserved for characters like Archie and Betty. But in 1947, the Beat Generation-a free-form, alternative lifestyle that rejected the conformist “square” culture and focused on different ways to realizing spirituality-bubbled up from the subculture dregs and this started seeping into mainstream throughout the 1950s. Once the Beat culture caught on, however, and college students started dressing in stereotypical berets and black leggings, the term “beatnik” arose, and this version of the Beat Generation is the one most Americans associate with the 1960s.

With Goldwater’s work with the Comics’ Code, I doubt he would’ve wanted people to view Jughead as a person with Beat sensibilities, but the laid-back, drifter personality he has, coupled with his rejection of his parents’ standards and goals for him (much to his father’s aggravation), Jughead has lends itself to those sensibilities easily. Incidentally, his love of jazz music and jazz drumming also fits eerily well into the Beat aesthetic. (I don’t think this part of his personality was made up during the time when beatniks were the rage, however.) During this time, Jughead’s clothes were either a lot more streamlined than those of other characters (fitting in with the Beat aesthetic), or there’d be something off-kilter that would differentiate him from the dress styles of the other characters:

In the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Jughead’s clothes became a little more psychedelic, again representing the Beat-and now hippie-countercultures of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

(Incidentally, in two different covers, he’s wearing the same psychedelic shirt.)

 

Jughead in the 1980s-1990s: Skate punk

When the Jughead comic book reached 1990, there was a huge schism between the old Jughead and the new, revamped, skate punk Jughead. And boy was it drastic. So drastic, in fact, that the powers-that-be quickly changed Jughead back to his old look. But I believe their thought process to change Jughead to fit more with the times were along two lines-first, the street-skateboarding lifestyle was everywhere during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and if it’s the hottest new thing, why not cash in on it? Secondly, Jughead’s personality was all about being the exception to the rule and the counter to the mundane that Archie represented; it would seem natural that he would take up a skateboard and start skating. I don’t know if he would shave his head, as shown in the examples below, but he definitely might take up skateboarding.

Also, one of the characteristics of the punk lifestyle (the original punk lifestyle, not just skate punk) is the D.I.Y. ethic-to make, grow, or find everything you need yourself. Even though Jughead would have to satisfy his Pop Tate-made hamburger cravings every now and again, the do-it-yourself idea seems like it would be something Jughead would take part in, at least for a little while. Being honest, even though the beginning of the ’90s saw the most radical change in Jughead ever, the covers were the most creative and innovative I’ve ever seen. I wish they made covers like these again, sans-Jughead weird haircut.


So how does Jughead represent counterculture today? In fact, what is today’s counterculture? I’ll analyze that in my next article. But for now, what do think about Jughead’s role in representing America’s counterculture? Discuss in the comments section!

 

 

The Inside Scoop on #BlackPantherSoLIT + What Marvel Can Learn From It

If you’ve been on the internet and haven’t heard of #BlackPantherSoLIT, then you are clearly doing something wrong. The hashtag went viral once news of Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o joining the film adpation of Black Panther spread. As countless articles have already said, the fact that the hashtag went viral two years–two years–before the film hits theaters shows how much of a need there is Marvel (and for film in general) to showcase non-white superheroes. To be even more precise, the hashtag shows how large (and how under-served) the audience is for non-white superheroes and non-white leads in general.

Take a look at moments from the hashtag for yourself:

I reached out to the creator of #BlackPantherSoLIT, @ChadwickandChill, and got their take on the creation of the hashtag and what impact it’s had. Here’s what they had to say in a statement:

I would always chatter with other fans about Chadwick and decided on December 5, 2015 to start a new page. I’ve held dedicated to engaging fans more. Starting this page was not met with the applause I expected from other core fans. I do it first to show lots of love to a cinematic light and talented Black man, Chadwick Boseman, and secondly for the fans. I don’t cheer and swoon for followers and it’s really just to engage the fandom! I’ve started other pages/campaigns as well – , ,  – and supported numerous others like . It’s all to unite fans and particularly those of us part of the African Diaspora, to edify work within our own collective versus waiting for an outside group to do so.

The goal is to not only make history with any effort, it’s to retell our own regal history and sustain it so that generations from now everyone will know that we are more than slaves and disenfranchised and we are not animals nor are we uncivilized. We are black, we are full of vitality, we are beautiful, we are supremely intelligent, innovative, creative, alive, well,  human, and thriving! Most importantly, We are kings, queens, regal through and through!

I also asked them two other questions about the hashtag, and here’s how they replied via Twitter:

So far, we’ve got Ryan Coogler writing and directing, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan as a possible villain, and Lupita Nyong’o as the love interest. Who else would you like to see join the cast?

Casting wise: I would love Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Denzel [Washington], Taraji [P. Henson],… So many to name.

What other POC Marvel superheroes/superheroines would you like to see brought to the big screen?

As far as another POC comic book hero: I’m not as versed in the comics at this stage today. As I learn, I’m sure I’ll have an opinion on that. Black Panther is stealing the show for me at this moment, it’s too historic for cinema history & Black Regality. I’m in Formation…

There are a couple of lessons Marvel, and Hollywood in general, can take from the popularity of #BlackPantherSoLit:

• Social media has its pulse on what people want: 

As I’ve said on the Sleepy Hollow episode of the Black Girl Nerds podcast, showrunners and show creators should know that their industry is just like any other industry that’s catering to others; your audience is your customer base, and it only makes sense to know what they want. Knowing what the audience wants is too easy nowadays; all you have to do is go on Twitter to see what the latest hashtags are discussing. Everyone’s discussing what they want from television and movies, so for creators of media to ignore that doesn’t make good business sense. Usually, ignoring the audience comes back to bite shows in the butt nowadays. See The 100 and, of course, Sleepy Hollow.

• People of all backgrounds want diversity in their stories, so actually give it to them:

It doesn’t make sense to have white superheroes and white characters in general stand in as the “default” American or the default human being. Entertainment, for me, is at its best when it provides a look at an idealized world that embraces all people. It’s through imagery that we know what is possible, similar to how some use religion to realize what they are actually capable of. If we never see what we could be as a society, we won’t strive for better.

Let’s remember that the biggest factor in the ’60s Civil Rights Movement was the usage of television and newspapers. There was a reason the revolution was televised; it was because without images, it would be easy for people to pretend that inequities didn’t exist. But with the eyes of the world focused on the members of the movement, they were able to hold the narrative in their own hands. The same goes for something as seemingly trivial as a superhero film. The person who holds the power can tell the story, and Hollywood’s been telling the same discriminatory story for decades. It’s time for Hollywood to give many other people the reins to tell their own stories and finally help the industry create the idealized version of America the real America can aspire to become.

• A black superhero (or a superhero of any other minority) doesn’t cater to a niche audience:

Once again, the idea that white equals “default” is at play with this thinking. How can someone not identify with someone else simply because of their skin color or culture? Hollywood has always been reticent to put a non-white face as its leading hero or heroine because of their tired “money” argument (which will be addressed in the next bullet point).

But the real reason non-white actors aren’t thought of for leading roles is because of a tribalism-rooted fear. When most of the people in Hollywood are of one color (or all straight), they will generally make entertainment that suits them and treat other voices as threats to their tribe and their perceived superiority. The majority will then believe that others won’t identify with the “minority” because they don’t. But Hollywood is out of touch, and it’s only just beginning to wake up to what the rest of the world is becoming, which is multicultural, more accepting, and tired of the “good ‘ol boy” way of doing things.

People want to see their friends, spouses, siblings, and children represented in entertainment, and it’s past time for Hollywood to do this. Black Panther doesn’t just speak to black America in a monolithic way; Black Panther speaks to the family who has adopted a black child and is searching for entertainment that reflects that child. Black Panther speaks to the woman who can finally go to a Marvel film with her black boyfriend or husband and see someone who looks like him as the superhero, not just “the best friend” to the superhero. Black Panther speaks to the son of African immigrants who can finally see portions of pan-African culture in mainstream entertainment. Black Panther speaks to more people than just the stereotyped idea of “black America.” Black Panther speaks to America, period.

• Practicing celluloid segregation isn’t where the money is:

As The Atlantic writes, Hollywood’s constant excuse for using white actors over non-white actors, that audiences want to see white faces, is a lie. University of North Carolina’s Venkat Kuppuswamy and MgGill University’s Peter Younkin studied data from Hollwyood films and their grosses, and found that more diverse casts generally fared better at the box office. It makes sense: under-served markets are desperate to see themselves on screen and will eagerly support films that showcase reflections of themselves.

Marvel is probably already realizing this in a big way with both the immediate viral success of Black Panther and the backlash against Doctor Strange with #whitewashedOUT. If you want to address more of your audience, show them in films. They’ll practically do the marketing for you, that is if the movie is actually good and is racially and culturally respectful, not just a “diversity” cash grab.

What do you think of #BlackPantherSoLIT? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Exclusive Interview: #StarringJohnCho creator William Yu

Could John Cho have swept Emilia Clarke off her feet in Me Before You? Or could have been everyone’s favorite astronaut in The Martian? Or could he have been Captain America in The Avengers? These possibilities and more are imagined with the hashtag #StarringJohnCho.

#StarringJohnCho, which also has a site and Twitter page by the same name, explores the roles John Cho (and by extension, other actors and actresses of Asian descent) could have played, and played well, but were denied solely because of race. The site and Twitter page, both of which contain photoshopped posters featuring Cho in the films’ leading roles, has gotten tons of press, and rightly so; the movement’s mission is to make people think critically about who gets cast in roles, why they get cast, and who gets left with the riff raff. Even better: #StarringJohnCho also has the support of Cho himself.

I was excited to speak to the man behind the movement, William Yu. In an email interview, Yu discussed the origins of #StarringJohnCho, Hollywood’s annoying casting practices, and what film role he would have liked to see Cho crush.

How did you come up with #StarringJohnCho?

As a Korean-American who has a passion for television and film, I’ve always had the lack of representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood in my mind. With the rise of television shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None that bring nuance to the portrayal of Asian-Americans, I wondered why the current state of racial diversity in Hollywood remained largely unchanged. When I read that films with more diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and higher returns on investments for film companies, I couldn’t understand why Hollywood wouldn’t cast lead actors to reflect this fact. I’m tired of hearing from people that they can’t “see” an Asian-American actor playing the romantic lead or the hero, so I created #StarringJohnCho to literally show you.

Are you surprised by the immediate success of the hashtag/Twitter movement?

This was a relevant topic that was important to me, so I always hoped that it would take off. But I am definitely blown away by the support that has come since I first launched a week ago. I’m very grateful that the majority of the reactions to the movement have been positive! I’m really appreciative of the followers who have gone the extra mile and created their own movie posters, it’s been amazing to see people really make it their own. While there have been a few opposing individuals along the way, I think their reactions prove that this conversation is a necessary one.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Why do you think there was such a groundswell of support?

I think a number of factors came into play at the right time. John Cho has always been a cult figure for Asian-Americans and those that have followed his work, but there has never been a rallying cry to bring these people together. With #OscarsSoWhite and #whitewashedOUT trending, the conversation of diversity in Hollywood has never been more relevant and top of mind. When I’ve had conversations with others about how Asian-Americans are represented in media, many times it comes down to being able to envision or imagine how an Asian-American would be a part of a film or TV show. Having a tangible, in your face solution, is something that I think people didn’t even realize that they needed to drive the message home.

John Cho has always been very vocal about AAPI visibility in Hollywood, so it must be great to have him like the hashtag/Twitter page. How does it feel to have Cho’s support?

It’s wonderful knowing that he acknowledges and understands the message of what we’re trying to get across. Choosing Cho as the focal point of the movement was a conscious decision, but there was definitely some risk in using his face, especially if the tag started to take off. It’s been great having other Asian-American thought leaders like Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, Ellen Oh, and Phil Yu also support the movement! Because as much as #StarringJohnCho is centered around him, there is a greater conversation about how Asian-Americans are perceived in our society to be had.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Cho’s most recent TV endeavor, Selfie, made waves for actually casting an Asian-American in the leading male role, but the show eventually went off the air. It was probably thought that another Asian American man wouldn’t be cast as in a leading male role, but now we have Daniel Wu on Into the Badlands and Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Albeit that’s only three roles in the tons of roles awarded to non-Asian men in Hollywood, but with that said, do you think the tide has shifted (if at all) for Asian actors on TV since Cho’s romantic comedic turn in Selfie? And why do you think there’s been no movement in film?

While I love seeing Wu and Ansari on screen, as well as Randall Park and Ki Hong Lee making waves, I don’t think we’re at the point to say the tide has shifted. I’m hopeful that these shows and actors are setting the right precedents for demonstrating that there is a desire and appetite for story-telling that integrates Asian actors. It represents possibility and opportunity. The staying power will be proven in the frequency and reception of future programs.

As for film, I believe that there is an issue in that Asian-Americans are not seen as individuals who can carry a major film. As the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA’s Bunche Centers shows, films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office and have higher returns on investment than those that are less diverse. I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t cast leads to reflect this fact, as the risk seems worthwhile. I think Alan Yang said it best in The Hollywood Reporter‘s article when he said, “[Hollywood] cast Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”

Hollywood seems to adhere to a set of stereotypes when it comes to uplifting or degrading men that are or aren’t their idea of a “viable leading man.” Why do you think Hollywood still lives by these stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes affecting Asian actors?

I think it dates back to the time when movie audiences would typically go see movies because of the actor who was in it, not because of the story that was being told. Thinking of Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, these stars draw audiences before a trailer gets released. As such, I’m sure executives want to continue to greenlight movies that feature these few individuals or find those that closely resemble them. But with franchises like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, and many Marvel films, we’re seeing a greater focus on the stories that these films are telling. There’s an opportunity for diverse casting because the films make the stars, not the other way around. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates that these stories still work with Asian-America lead, so why not take the chance?

John-Cho-Selfie-ABC-LARGE
John Cho in ‘Selfie’. ABC.

How do you think #StarringJohnCho ties into other AAPI/POC-visibility movements like #whitewashedOUT, #OscarsSoWhite, etc.?

The goal of #StarringJohnCho was always to ignite a conversation and build upon the amazing discussions currently being had around race. I think that the movement adds another facet to the discussion by questioning why Asians can’t play leads that aren’t race specific. It’s not just about jobs and Hollywood dollars, but asks how we perceive people of color in our society.

How do you hope #StarringJohnCho affects Hollywood? Also, what message do you want viewers of the hashtag to come away with?

I hope that #StarringJohnCho will not only show fellow Asian-Americans that they can be anything they want to be, but also show those with less active imaginations that the opposition to an Asian-American playing the lead of a major motion picture is an unfounded and antiquated notion. It’s been great seeing those in the film industry support the movement, and I do hope that those in the decision making positions are taking note. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates the desire for an Asian-American lead, now Hollywood execs just have to see it.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

The film adaptation of Crazy, Rich Asians is coming. Do you think the film could open the door to more Hollywood films starring all-Asian or mostly-Asian casts?

I love that a movie like Crazy, Rich Asians is getting made. With films that feature an all-Asian or mostly-Asian cast, I think what’s great is that they are amazing opportunities to show the world the complexities and nuances of Asian-American culture that are not typically brought to life onscreen. I am hopeful that these stories will resonate with audiences both Asian and non-Asian. And with its success, films like these will absolutely make the thought of creating similar movies will be far less daunting for Hollywood.

What would be your dream film or TV show starring John Cho?

My favorite movie last year was Ex Machina. Would love to see John Cho tearing up the dance floor as Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman.♦

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Other articles to check out:

THR Dream Casts the ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’ Movie|The Hollywood Reporter (written back in 2015!)

Working in Hollywood When You’re Not White|The Hollywood Reporter

#StarringJohnCho Was A Reality, Briefly, in ‘Selfie’|Inverse

 

Recapping #WhitewashedOUT and the excitement for “Crazy, Rich Asians”

Edited to reflect the full team behind #whitewashedOUT

JUST ADD COLOR has been doing some major coverage about the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, and if you read my virtual roundtable with The Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow and Afronerd and Renegade Nerd’s Claire Lanay, you might have seen some mention of Chow’s hashtag project, #whitewashedOUT. The hashtag went live Tuesday, and it sparked such a wave of responses, it tracked to number two in the Twitter trends.

Since it’s been a few days (and since I’ve been busy with my own Ghost in the Shell article for The Nerds of Color), let’s recap what happened this week.

The power of #whitewashedOUT

The hashtag #whitewashedOUT was a combined effort of Chow, Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library & Information Science at St. Catherine University, writer Ellen Oh (@elloellenoh), writer Amitha Knight, writer Sona Charaipotra, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Terry Hong , “Bookrageous” podcaster and writer Preeti Chhibber (@runwithskizzers), surgeon and writer Ilene Wong Gregorio, writer Thien-Kim Lam, and Written in the Stars author Aisha Saeed. (It’s also worth noting that many listed here are also a part of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, with Oh as the CEO and President.) Comedian and actress Margaret Cho also contributed to the hashtag with her commentary and support.

Everyone came out in droves to support it and to offer their own experiences with racism, lack of representation, and struggles for self-acceptance.

Stars like Kerry Washington, Jackée Harry, Hari Kondabolu, Constance Wu, BD Wong, director Lexi Alexander and others helped bolster the hashtag, too, making the movement even more powerful. (Make sure to check the hashtag for yourself to see what everyone else had to say.)

Around the same time as #whitewashedOUT, a Facebook post Star Trek‘s George Takei made about Doctor Strange went viral. Here’s what Takei wrote on his Facebook page:

So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.

Marvel already addressed the Tibetan question by setting the action and The Ancient One in Kathmandu, Nepal in the film. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country. So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.

To those who say, “She [is] an actress, this is fiction,” remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?

Wong also had stuff to say on the erroneous casting of late. In his speech during May 2nd’s Beyond Orientalism: A Forum, Wong discussed about the instances he’s faced racist casting and yellowface in his acting career. “The tradition of white actors transforming themselves, playing whoever they want, crossing race, painting themselves up, and doing all sorts of things like that is as deeply entrenched in them as our pain is in us,” he said (as recounted by Fusion). “…You [white actors] can’t win when you have the yellowface on. You can’t win when you take the yellowface off. You’re in the wrong part.”

Online coverage of #whitewashedOUT

Several outlets covered the impact of #whitewashedOUT, including NBC Asian America, Buzzfeed, CNN Money, Colorlines, Salon, Bustle, Blavity, and others. Chow told Buzzfeed in a phone interview that the hashtag is about everything whitewashing represents, not just the optics of seeing Asian faces in film. “The whole idea of being whitewashed goes beyond just Asian characters being played by white people,” he said. “It’s the idea of centering whiteness in every story. Whiteness to them is ‘colorblind.’ Everyone can project themselves onto a white guy. Being an Asian-American person, I’ve spent my entire life identifying with non-Asian people, because you have to. And I want [to] tell white moviegoers it’s not that hard to see a person [who isn’t of] your ethnicity and identify with that person. We’ve been doing it for years.”

Marvel’s response to #whitewashedOUT

Marvel brass has certainly heard about #whitewashedOUT and have responded. To the level of satisfaction one might feel about the responses depends on you, the individual.

Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, wrote on Twitter, “Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping, & erasure of Asians in cinema. I am listening and learning.” The test is if Derrickson (and other directors who are also watching the #whitewashedOUT movement) will put what was learned into practice. (Some of the responses Derrickson received from his Twitter response were from a person who wrote that he had been blocked by Derrickson last year for bringing up the whitewashing in the film. “Now all of a sudden, he’s ‘listening,’ he wrote.)

Kevin Feige was asked about the controversy by Deadline, to which he responded with several interesting statements:

On the erroneous statement of Swinton being cast due to Chinese-Tibetan tensions (as originally alluded by Doctor Strange co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill): We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons. That’s just always been te case. I’ve always believed that it is the films themeselves that will cross all borders and really get people to identify with these heroeos, and that always comes down to creative and not political reasons.

On the casting of Swinton as a creative choice: The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?

On the whitewashing controversy: The truth is, the conversation that’s taking place around this is super-important. It’s something we are incredibly mindful of. We cast Tilda out of a desire to subvert stereotypes, not feed into them. I don’t know if you saw [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson’s tweet the other day. He said we’re listening and we’re learning, every day. That really is true…I’m hopeful that some of our upcoming announcements are going to show that we’ve been listening.

On Captain Marvel being directed by a woman: [W]e are meeting with many, many immensely talented directors, the majority of whom are female. I do hope they will have announcements certainly by the summer, before the summer’s end, on a director for that.

Feige gives answers that are typical of an exec who has to respond to a controversy, but having said that, I personally think he means well. But “meaning well” is different than actually putting your money where your mouth is, and Feige himself addressed that sentiment in his interview (which is why he said he’s hopeful that upcoming films will help assuage fears of further diversity issues). However, three points of contention here,  one of them not even having to do with Feige:

  1. Why did Deadline writer Mike Fleming, Jr. call the controversy a “pseudo-controversy”? What makes this a fake controversy or half of a controversy? There’s nothing “pseudo” about it.
  2. If Feige wanted to subvert The Ancient One by casting a woman, why not have an Asian woman do it? (This point is actually discussed in my roundtable article). Or, if a woman is all that’s needed, why cast a white woman only? Were other actresses considered? Were certain casting agents even aware of the role to pass it along to their WOC clients? What was the audition process like? What did the casting call entail? There are a lot of questions here, because if The Ancient One is a learned woman, then anyone could play that role. The word “woman” doesn’t equal “white woman.”
  3. To that end, Doctor Strange didn’t have to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch either, because the assumption is still that a white man has to lead a Marvel movie. Twitter user Gelek Bhotay brings this up in his Twitter thread. If we’re really breaking away from the racist past of the Doctor Strange comics, take it completely out of the white male gaze and put it in the gaze of a POC woman and a POC man. It would also help if Marvel considered representing more of its viewership, such as LGBT viewers, disabled viewers, etc. Of course, you can’t address all of these in just one film, but that’s the beauty of a huge Marvel universe; you can address everyone when it comes to future film decisions. There’s still a lot of “listening and learning” Marvel has to do.

The big Hollywood news: Jon Chu to direct Crazy, Rich Asians

In this midst of #whitewashedOUT coverage, news was released that Jon Chu is set to direct the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy, Rich Asians. The book, according to Entertainment Weekly, “tells the story of an American-born Chinese woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s super-wealthy family once there, she encounters jaw-dropping opulence and snobbery.” The book has two sequel books, China’s Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems (the latter of which will be out in 2017).

Chu tweeted about the news, also adding, “With amazing Asian actors cast in EVERY SINGLE ROLE. #itstime.”

It is time. It’s past time. So let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians doesn’t act as this generation’s Joy Luck Club (i.e. be an incredible film only to become an anomaly in Hollywood’s filmography featuring Asian-Americans in major roles). Let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians is just the first of an overflow of films starring Asian-Americans as leading men and leading ladies.

JUST ADD COLOR’s “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dr. Strange” Online Roundtable featuring Claire Lanay and Keith Chow

Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience.

Each film has its many problems, but to give a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:

Ghost in the Shell

• Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).

Scarlett-Johansson-GITS

•According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.

• Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku, Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”

• Max Landis, the screenwriter of American Ultra, released a video condemning the casting, but also states in his video (as reported by Entertainment Weekly), “The only reason to be upset about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true.

Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rim character Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen.

A video features Japanese participants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the video is that the people interviewed don’t see a problem with Johansson as The Major. But now the video is being used by pro-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate those, particularly Asian Americans, who are against Johansson as The Major.

•Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset.

The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”

Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”

Dr. Strange

• Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetian character as well as an antiquated stereotype of an Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way to create a more updated, non-stereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots. Check her out in the trailer:

(Personal commentary: aside from Swinton as a jarring Ancient One, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch with an nasally American accent is…upsetting.)

•Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she was approached to do the character, she was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”

• C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Dr. Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. (Discussion occurs around the 18 minute mark.)

However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”

Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian actress was chosen.

• Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE.

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

One could say their statement features many fictional statements as far as their film universe goes, because the MCU is still not diverse enough in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to parse through. At first, I was going to write a post providing my point of view, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit this one out. I’ve written on entertainment moves affecting Asian Americans before, but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m not about to wade in any “honorary Asian” waters, especially with how nuanced the issues surrounding these films have become. Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online buddies if I could interview them about their opinions on these films.

Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend co-host of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies.

What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?

Chow: I think like most folks, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s hard to believe that whitewashing is still considered acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these castings are no exception. But in light of the outrage (and lack of box office) that movies like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered, you’d think the studios would start taking the hint.

Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet amused by Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate and ask myself what discussions led to this outcome? Similar to the problems with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these comic book characters were created several decades ago and are inherently racist.  Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in a day and is better suited to unlock the wisdom, magic and skills of these mystic teachings in a manner the savage natives never could – Iron Fist, anyone?

So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a British woman? Could the reason have been that without including another female character, the film would look the way most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest?  OK fine.  Let’s make her a woman.

I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood has an unspoken rule about not allowing more than one person per color per movie or TV show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is more than one person per color, they’re usually a minor/expendable character and therefore, the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Empire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong playing the servant.  They have Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo.  So, of course, they most certainly cannot have another POC playing the Ancient One.  Heavens, no! Too many minorities!  I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.

Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize whitewashing.  Just because you don’t want the character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the character cannot be Asian.  Would The Ancient One originally have announced him/herself as Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making all that Chinese dough… why not make the character Chinese? Have him/her speak Mandarin.  Have him/her walk around with a large neon sign that says “Made in China”.

They’re implying that in order to avoid offending other cultures, they have to erase them.  Are they so lazy that they are not willing to put any thought into how they could modernize these POC characters for today’s audience?

As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments:

To make a blanket statement that there are no Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t see how it would be possible for them to be visible enough to become A-list. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.

The other thing that was mentioned was that there are no Asian actors capable of getting a movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail, flop, bomb.  Yet, nothing changes.  I’m starting to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Johansson is playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi.  It baffles my mind that there are people who don’t see this as offensive.

Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visit The Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?

Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.

I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s caliber would not have taken the role if it was one-note. So why not afford that opportunity to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.

Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least bit curious as to what George Takei could have done with The Ancient One?  Ken Watanabe?  Chow Yun-Fat?…How about Michelle Yeoh?  Joan Chen?  Gong Li?  Bai Ling?

I’ve had so many heated debates and arguments with people about Iron Fist.  The argument for keeping Danny Rand white is that “it’s what the author intended for how that character’s story should be told”. According to that logic, we should stay 100 percent true to the original cannon and lore even if that means 80-plus years of American comic book history has primarily only given us white male leading characters as the hero and a handful of female/POC characters seen mostly as sidekicks, background or filler.

Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s comments after Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the white people’s characters and make some of your own”.  As if no one has tried?  Even if I understood why it’s bemoaned when a POC is cast as a character originally envisioned as white, why is it ok to “steal” our characters who were specifically created to be of color?

As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue.  They rather avoid it than face it head on.  For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cowardly. Am I surprised?  No.  Disappointed?  Yes.  Captain America: Civil War will be their 14th film and only now are they barely getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the film schedule.

I will say that they do seem to be putting in a concerted effort on the TV side.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed her bi-racial parentage.  I’m pleased to see that has been acknowledged since other hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have played fully white characters on shows like Smallville.

Dr. Strange, as a comic book series, draws its inspiration from the 1930s radio series Chandu the Magician, which also features a white man receiving mystic instruction from an Asian teacher, this time an Indian yogi. With all of the stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr. Strange is based in, how do you feel the film should have been approached (despite the fact that we haven’t seen the full movie)? With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Strange and set pictures featuring non-Asian actors in Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-esque clothes, how do you feel about the appropriation factor of the film? 

Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah, you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point, Hollywood should start casting more POC leads just to stand out from the pack. Studies have already proven those films make more money anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and even Daredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.

Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented roster.  I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt Cumberbatch will bring something interesting to the role.  Tilda Swinton also played a role originally meant for a male in the movie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no way defined by gender or race regardless of the fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel.  Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles.  For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.

As for them playing dress up in monk-esque attire?  Appropriation is unavoidable.  I’ll say this – I have a problem with folks using all of my toys but not allowing me to play with them.

Swinton has come out and said that the way she was approached for the role was never under the guise that she was playing an Asian man and that she’s confident in how she’s portrayed the character in the film. How do you feel about her statement? Also, what do you think about the compounded problem Marvel has created by whitewashing a character, yet adding diversity by making the character a woman?

Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Just because they gender bent the character doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being racist. If they were going to change the character, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s with all the orientalism in the setting? Even then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet another POC character and erased him from existence.

That goes back to what I said earlier, she may not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t whitewash the character. They still took an originally Asian character and bent over backwards to come up with a reason for why said character had to be played by a white person. This is the double standard that’s the most frustrating. When I called for an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to come up with every justifiable reason for the suggestion, how an Asian American would not alter the character whatsoever. But white folks are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”

Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films (as provided by Claire Lanay)
  • BORIS KARLOFF
    Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ 1932
  • KATHERINE HEPBURN
    Jade in ‘Dragon Seed’ 1944
  • JOHN WAYNE
    Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ 1956
  • MARLON BRANDO
    Sakini in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ 1956
  • MICKEY ROONEY
    Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ 1961
  • ELIZABETH TAYLOR
    Cleopatra in ‘Cleopatra’ 1963
  • DAVID CARRADINE
    Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ 1972-1975 &
    ‘Kung Fu: The Legend Continues’ 1993-1997
  • FISHER STEVENS
    Ben Jabituya in ‘Short Circuit’ 1986
  • LIAM NEESON
    Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ 2005
  • JUSTIN CHATWIN
    Goku in ‘Dragonball Evolution’ 2009
  • JAKE GYLLENHAAL
    Dastan in ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ 2010
  • NOAH RINGER, NICOLA PELTZ, JACKSON RATHBONE
    Aang, Katara, Sokka in ‘The Last Airbender’ 2010
  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
    Khan Noonien Singh in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ 2013
  • JOHNNY DEPP
    Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger’ 2013
  • CHRISTIAN BALE, JOEL EDGERTON
    Moses, Ramses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 2014
  • EMMA STONE
    Ng in ‘Aloha’ 2015
  • ROONEY MARA
    Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ 2015
  • GERARD BUTLER, NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU
    Set, Horus in ‘Gods of Egypt’ 2016
  • TILDA SWINTON
    Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange’ 2016
  • SCARLETT JOHANSSON
    Motoko Kusanagi in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 2017

Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is?

Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call it Ghost in the Shell?  If you’re going to remove the character’s backstory and culture, then call it something else.  At least Tom Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  It was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill.  They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history.  Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya?

The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson playing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?

Chow: The way we view and discuss race in America is very different than how people in other countries view and discuss race. Japan has its own issues with how it views race and ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans in America.

To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t the problem. My advocating for Asian American actors has nothing to do with Chinese moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves.

Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell is because they already have their own media infrastructure.  They already have their own, actors, singers, dancers, writers, producers, directors.  They already have their own content made for them by them.  So they don’t really care about one movie with one white actress.  In this country, Hollywood gives us less than a handful of opportunities to see ourselves represented in movies and television, so of course we’re clamoring for whatever crumbs and scraps are tossed our way.  The rest of the world soaks up our content, but we don’t promote or watch content from the rest of the world.  That makes seeing diversity in American media all the more important to POC in this country because it’s such a rarity.

Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful.  Do I think a Black Widow movie would be the better option for Johansson?  Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash or some struggling actress trying to make her big break.  She didn’t have to say yes to Ghost in the Shell.

I want to see Doctor Strange.  Controversy aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I’ll take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  Even though the nasty discourse has left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curious to see how they build towards The Defenders.  Can’t wait to see Luke Cage!  Will I watch Ghost in the Shell?  Nah, I’ll be skipping that one.

Recently, several actresses of Asian descent have called The Major “blackface,” launching another layer to the outrage. Do you think about the controversy over calling such casting “blackface,” despite the term “yellowface” in existence?

Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, primarily because yellowface is an offensive and racist enough practice on its own — but I get why Constance felt she had to make it. One of the problems is that most people think race in America is binary. This has always been part of the struggle for Asian Americans when discussing race in that context.

Often in matters of race, Asian Americans are only perceived depending on their relation to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t think that excuses co-opting black struggle to make a point. I think as a community we have to be mindful about how we coalition build and support one another without being anti-black in the process. This is why the backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was disheartening. This was an example of a pan-ethnic protest against the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, but for whatever reason non-black POCs thought their issues were being ignored. It didn’t help that during the telecast aired, Asians were still openly mocked.

So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].

Lanay: As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with friends and influences of all backgrounds… As someone who has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is deeply proud to call many intelligent, creative, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to use the term “blackface” over the term “yellowface” in regards to what we’re discussing here.  She specifically said “blackface” because she thought it would be more “evocative”.

While I fully appreciate the outrage towards her comments, I have some idea of where she’s coming from. During the Oscars telecast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room.  So all the more reason people in the Asian community were upset and insulted by three little Asian kids being paraded on stage to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.

While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive or hostile, I can understand why Wu and many others were incensed by these jokes during a show that was basically hammering diversity down people’s throats.  Yes, there were no Black nominees.  There were no Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or LGBT ones either (as far as I know).

…When I came across the “blackface” comment, my first thought was: “Why all of the sudden, are Asians getting angry now?  Why weren’t they speaking out and standing up when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?”  I was starting to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn.  Why are the rest of them so late to the party?

…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC.  We should be working together.  It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too.

What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles?

Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color. 

Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles.  They’re not listening.  They don’t care. They wanted to cast name-actors, so they did.  White is the standard of beauty.  White is the grade for which excellence is measured.  White is the default setting.  Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality.

Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel.  She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim.  Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan.  She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered.  I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell.

There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed.  There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded.  Hollywood learns nothing.  The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually.  I hope I’m still around to see that change.  Scratch that.  I am going to be part of that change. ♦

The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best:

“For a long time, I hated being Asian.  I hated the way I looked.  I hated not getting the auditions I wanted.  I hated not being taken seriously.  My mother would always tell me not to make waves.  With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves!  Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin.  Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”

Other articles to check out:

#S4MBlerds: Dear Hollywood, whitewashing doesn’t make better movies|Blavity

Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors|Complex

6 Japanese Actresses Who Could (and Should!) Replace Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’|Yahoo

Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters|L.A. Times

N.O.C. One-Shot: Whitewashing in Black and Yellow| The Nerds of Color

Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell|The Nerds of Color

Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians|Media Diversified

What a Shitty Week to be an Asian American Woman in Hollywood|The Nerds of Color

Constance Wu And Ming-Na Wen Protest Hollywood’s Whitewashing Of “Ghost In The Shell”|Buzzfeed

Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?|New York Times

Exclusive Interview: Alice Wong (the Disability Visibility Project)

The Disability Visibility Project (DVP) is a site everyone working towards equal representation needs to visit. Too often, those of us in the online field of social justice journalism/opinion-making stay within the racial and sexuality boundaries and forget that there is yet another group we need to reach out to; those with disabilities. People with disabilities often fit within one or two of the aformentioned groups, but all of their needs and issues are hardly ever catered to at the same time. I realized this about my own site, and while I still have work to do (and still looking for guest posts from people far more experienced than me who might be able to speak to the issues of the disabled), I decided the best thing to do would be to reach out and ask for help. One of the first people I asked was the owner of the Disability Visibility Project, Alice Wong.

Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco and has authored and completed research for the Community Living Policy Center, a center for rehabilitation research and training funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. She has created the Disability Visibility Project with the goal of amplifying the voices of those with disabilities, voices who often get shouted down by the media. The site is also a partner with StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that allows people to record their stories and share with others, as well as provide a way to create an oral history of families and communities. I was excited to interview Wong and get her perspective. In this email interview, you’ll read her thoughts on how disability is treated in the media, what non-disabled people can be better allies to their friends and family members with disabilities, and how you can contribute to the Disability Visibility Project.

What led you to start the Disability Visibility Project?

Alice Wong: I listen to NPR a lot and every Friday on Morning Edition they broadcast a short piece from StoryCorps. I also love their animated stories from their website and appreciated the wide diversity of stories. Later on I discovered that San Francisco had a StoryCorps recording booth and attended one of their live events and that’s when I first came up with the DVP.

StoryCorps is a fascinating initiative to the partnered up with. How did the Disability Visibility Project and StoryCorps join forces?

At the StoryCorps event I attended in SF around 2013, they mentioned how they have various community partnerships and I immediately thought there should be a disability-specific partnership since the SF Bay Area has large and vibrant disability community. I reached out to them and after a series of conversations on how a partnership would work and what’s involved, it was relatively easy. What’s great about StoryCorps is they have the infrastructure in place: the people, the equipment, and the relationship with the Library of Congress to archive these oral histories. Our goal as a community partnership is to make sure our people are represented.

There are some inherent problems in how the media portrays disability. What are some of the biggest problems you see in the media when it comes to reporting on disability or portraying disability in entertainment?

So many problems! I’ll focus on one: media (both creators of popular culture and professions such as journalism) is overwhelmingly non-disabled. When you have non-disabled people pitching, writing and editing stories about disabled, you’re missing the lived experience that’s intimately tied to accurate depictions of disability. And it’s more than a matter of hiring more disabled people in media–there’s also a need for a culture shift to examine how ableism is entrenched in the media. I spoke about this issue herehere and here for more information.

How does the Disability Visibility Project aim to uplift the voices of the disabled? What kind of impact do you think the Disability Visibility Project has had?

The word ’empowerment’ is overused but the DVP truly does empower people—the tools and resources are there for disabled people to use. They can shape their narrative in any way they want and by creating new media that’s more authentic, it will amplify and uplift those voices. Not really sure what kind of impact the DVP has on mainstream media but the disability community seems to dig it and that means the world to me. I hear people are using the content from our website in classes and that’s awesome.  As the DVP evolved, it created a space online for people to have conversations outside of the recording booth. Our Facebook group has over 5000 members and it’s a place where I curate links to blog posts and information about disability culture. Some interesting debates take place in that group, sometimes very heated and contentious but overall folks are respectful of one another. I also host Twitter chats on specific issues such as a recent one on 4/14 on North Carolina’s bathroom law and the conversation was about transgender and disability solidarity w/ 2 disabled transgender people as the guest co-hosts. These kinds of activities energize me.

Have you seen any improvements in the media when it comes to showcasing the disabled, the issues affecting the disabled, etc.?

It’s still pretty sucky. The recent report by the Annenberg Center that was widely touted as the go-to report on diversity in Hollywood completely excluded disability in their report. It’s hard to improve things when you’re totally erased at the outset. However, there are many people working hard to start those dialogues and slowly work their way in to a ‘seat at the table.’

Social media is great in trying to balance out this lack of representation where there is room to create and signal boost great work that’s diverse and authentic.

There a lot of diversity fights out there, but unfortunately, we don’t see too many groups who advocate for the marginalized extend that fight to the disabled. What are ways the non-disabled can support the disabled in the fight for inclusion?

I know there are lots of folks tired of supporting others while others don’t support them. I noticed the conversation during the Oscars when there was pushback of Asian Americans who talked about the lack of diversity in Hollywood in response Chris Rock’s comments. It can sound like, “What about me?” and the push to de-center any specific conversation or focus.

I’m probably guilty of that too or may seem like it because it is rare that disability is ever mentioned so I have to say, “What about us?” to even introduce the notion. At the same time I genuinely try to be a good ally and support activism across movements and intersectional identities.

One thing non-disabled people can do is think, “Who’s missing?” and do something about it whenever there is a discussion of diversity. It’s not only about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Plus engaging with disabled people is another step after asking that initial question.

We know about Black Lives Matter, 18 Million Rising, CAIR, NCLR, etc. But even though disability and racial issues overlap, it doesn’t seem like they’re always focused on at the same time. With that said, who are some disability advocates/advocacy groups the non-disabled should get to know?

I’ve had to good fortune to come across some amazing disabled people of color in my local community and online. Here are some disabled people of color your readers should check out (among many others):

Leroy Moore, founder of Krip Hop Nation who collaborated on Where Is Hope? a documentary looking at police brutality toward people with disabilities.

Mia Mingus, a queer disabled woman of color who writes about and works in disability justice and transformative justice community organizing

Showing Up for Racial Justice has a Disability and Access toolkit that folks can use

Dior Vargas, a Latina feminist mental health activist who is the creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project.

How can individuals contribute to the Disability Visibility Project?

There are several options—folks can record their story using the StoryCorps app, if they live in San Francisco, Atlanta, or Chicago they can go in person to the recording booth. We also accept guest blog posts for as another option for those who prefer to communicate via written or visual language. We also partnered w/ another organization’s Instagram campaign #365DaysWithDisability where people can submit photos. Details on how to participate here: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/how-to-participate/

What’s your vision for an inclusive America?

One that understands and embraces intersectionality without having to use the terms ‘intersectionality’ or ‘diversity.’ Where differences in bodies, ways of thinking and being, and in identity, are embedded and the default in definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘American.’♦

Exclusive Interview: Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn (“Lovers in Their Right Mind”)

Lovers in Their Right Mind is a film looking to change the conversation about interracial and interfaith relationships. Much of the interracial conversation revolves around the black-white dynamic, even though there are tons of other types of interracial, intercultural, and interfaith relationships out there. Lovers in Their Right Mind, written by journalist-author Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn and screenwriter Barrington Smith-Seetachitt, focuses on the love between a black woman and an Iranian immigrant and the learning curves both go through in the relationship.

I’ve already covered Lovers in Their Right Mind on JUST ADD COLOR, so I was excited to speak with Littlejohn about the film and how her experiences influenced the film. Lovers in Their Right Mind is still in pre-production. A crowdfunding campaign will be announced later this summer. Keep up with Lovers in Their Right Mind on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

How did you come up with the story for Lovers in their Right Mind

I had co-authored a book [with Christelyn Karazin] called Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, which was on interracial, intercultural and interfaith dating and relationships. It had been optioned by a company and they offered me an opportunity to write my vision. As I was trying to come up with the character that spoke to both the three factors of race, culture, and religion, I was looking for a singular couple that would inhabit that. While [with] that particular [book] option, they decided to go in a different direction with everybody swirling, I felt like what I had created spoke to what I wanted to see on screen, which was a different kind of conversation about black women and who they have opportunities to date. I felt like we had seen so much of black women and white men in television and film that we never get sense of black women outside of the black and white coupling. The options for black women are so much more vast…and from my own experience, that was true.

I began to look at my own dating habits…I had been dating a Persian man and the conversation of meeting families had come up. The thing he said was, they wouldn’t have a problem with you because you’re black, but because you’re American, you don’t speak Farsi, and various other things. So that’s where the idea for the outline came from, and when it was turned down, there was an actor who I knew and had interviewed, and I was talking to him about it because he was asking me what was swirling (because it was in my signature in my email account). I told him I was trying to explore this idea of an African American woman with a Persian man, and his comment was, “Well, am Persian!” So we had a really good conversation.

I had dated some Persian men before, and…when I began to look back on my own dating [experiences], it became a really great source of narrative tension and drama, comedy and romance. As I continued to research, there are a lot of wonderful similarities between the two cultures and, at least here in southern California, Iranian Americans tend to be more insular, black people live in their communities and never the ‘twain meet, it became a really great story to talk about my city that I grew up in and people in my city that never get seen on screen.

You mentioned Swirling; since the book discusses interracial relationships, what do you think America needs to know to become more educated about interracial relationships?

I think that swirling has become a hot topic because we are seeing the demographic shifts of our people. We are more a multicultural, multiracial America and globally, people are intermixing and intermarrying. You look at films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how that was really popular; it’s not lost on pop culture that these things are happening in our own world. I think the thing I wanted to bring to the table was a different dynamic that you haven’t seen. I think with Swirling as a book, it became interesting in that it invited black women to open up their options. Many times, the books we had read previously and that I had seen were very regal-focused or focused on biology or the dearth of black men.

What I wanted to bring was a different discussion…what are some of the reasons black women don’t [date outside of their race] because black women are still the least likely to date outside of their race or culture out of any other ethnic group. What were some of the factors that were keeping black women from reaching outside of their comfort zone? I think those discussions are important to have, particularly when we look at issues like black love and black lives matter. All these things are interconnected with us socially, but what does it mean when we are looking for a mate, for someone who speaks to our heart’s desire?

Oftentimes, that social construct of race doesn’t hold up when you’re looking for someone to partner with. It’s important to look at factors beyond race when considering a mate, and I wanted to present a non-apologetic narrative that it’s okay for black women to date [outside of their race], because of the hundreds of women I spoke with, it was always [discussed] with shame, or controversy, or “My momma won’t jive with this,” or “My daddy won’t think this is great” or “My cousins will think I’m crazy.” It’s very rooted in fear. So the thing that is important to me about the book and about this movie is to see how we can reach beyond the lines of fear, beyond even the rhetoric of our own cultures and explore who we are as people and what we want; what fulfills us as people instead of subscribing to a group-think mentality.

One thing you said reminded me of Jungle Fever; in one part of the movie; you have Wesley Snipes’ character’s girlfriend hanging out with her friends, and they’re talking amongst themselves about whether they would date outside of their race. Wesley Snipes’ girlfriend says that she wouldn’t because she’s a strong black woman and feels that she should only date strong black men. It seems like she puts a very racially-charged focus on why she only dates black men, as if to prove her blackness, not whoever I might like if they aren’t black. With that said, how do you feel about some black women who feel like they need to date inside the race to prove their blackness to themselves and to the world?

Well, we [Littlejohn and Smith-Seetachitt] address this in the book and in the film. I do think that there is an identity concern among black women, that if they’re dating someone that’s not black that it somehow negates or dilutes their blackness, but that’s overwhelmingly not true. The black women that we spoke to for the book and interviewed for the film are, very definitely, black women, and own their blackness and blackness is not given or taken based on who you’re partnered with. Blackness is who you are, and they bring that sense of who they are into their relationships and give that sense of themselves into their children, they pass along that history to their children.

Rarely have I encountered women who completely buy into or absorb into another cultural…or racial construct because they have now partnered with a man who is non-black. You are who you are, and you bring that into your relationship. That’s an important thing with a relationship with anybody, whether they’re black, Latino, Persian, what have you. When you’re in a relationship, it’s not that you’re negating who you are racially. It’s that you’re sharing a part of yourself with someone. The thing that I find really exciting about interracial and intercultural dating, both personally and writing, about it is that people learn to appreciate people as people. They learn to understand different cultural traditions and understanding. There was a woman I was interviewing for the book, and she was dating a Swedish man. They eventually married and she learned how to speak Swedish and they now live in Sweden. She learned a lot about another culture that has broadened her, both in her life and work experiences.

I think there’s value in that. If we’re going to be this global community we keep saying we are, if we’re going to be this post-racial community we say we want to be, then we need to learn how to talk to people, and address people and learn about people who are different than us, in ways that allow us to appreciate people as people instead of under this blanket of colorblindness. You see my color when you see me; it’s not about being colorblind. I’m quoting Mellody Hobson here–it’s really about being color brave. It’s about looking at my color, my experiences, my heritage, my people, and getting to know that as a part of who I am. This black construct isn’t all of who I am; there are so many other things about me that are worth getting to know and that’s an important part of loosening the shackles of fear and being able to open yourself and your mind to something different. It doesn’t change who you are; it just gives you an opportunity to know who somebody else is.

Now I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate—

Sure, go ahead!

What about fetish? Because I’ve been several online forums and Facebook groups about interracial dating and experiences with interracial dating, and a topic that always comes up is when some fetishize another race. For some, it seems like the line between fetish and a regular relationship is muddied. What do you make of this issue and how it comes into the discussion?

Well, if you find that your partner is fetishizing you, then that’s a relationship you don’t want. Then to say, I’ve dated a white man, an Italian man, a Mexican man, and they fetishized me, therefore I’m not going to date any more white or Italian or Mexican men, is pretty sad! You may be missing out on some white or Italian or Mexican man somewhere down the line that adores you for who you are.

I think any kind of new experience, if there is something you’re concerned about—be it a same-race relationship or an interracial relationship—you need to talk about it. If you don’t get the answers you need or deserve, then that’s not the type of relationship you should be in with that person instead of [labeling] that race of people. I was married to a black man, but that wasn’t my cue to then say, “I will no longer date any black men.” I date men of all races and of all cultures. I date people who I find appealing and attractive, interesting, invigorating, and worthwhile. A lot of the relationships I’ve had have led me to this particular moment and to this particular story. Had I not had those experiences and turned them down, not only would I have not had those experiences, but I’d also be sitting around saying, “I don’t have any love in my life.”

Men have fetishes, women have fetishes, that’s not cool; if you feel like that’s what’s happening to you in your relationship, then move on from that relationship; don’t label the whole race of people, the whole culture of people as such and such because you’ve had one bad experience. You never know what wonderful experiences you could have with someone who appreciates you for you.

(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn
(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn

Since Lovers in their Right Mind also includes the interfaith element, how would you suggest people approach tackling interfaith issues in relationships?

I think for all of these questions, it can be summed up to talk about it [with your partner]. My religious needs and wants may be different from someone else’s, and it’s a part of being upfront in that relationships. I know a lot of Jewish-Christian relationships, a lot of Muslim-Christian relationships. It’s about what you want and need from your religion, your faith, your relationship, and what you want for your children.

I’m not going to say that I’m a dating expert–I’m a filmmaker and a journalist who’s writing about a situation that I find intriguing, and after a ton of research and this is what I came up with–but the throughline in all of it is communication. Talk about it. I think we’re so fearful of having those conversations. The same conversation you need to have with your partner about STDs and how you want to have sexual practice are the same type of conversations you need to have with your partner about faith and what your faith means to you.

I go back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian wanted [Toula], and she wanted to be married in a Greek Orthodox Church and he got that done; they got married in a Greek Orthodox Church because he felt like it was worth it for him. For other couples, it goes further; will we celebrate Christmas or will we celebrate Jewish holidays and how do we do that with our children? I think those are very individual, personal discussions, and once the couple has had them and comes to terms with what they want in their marriage, that’s between them, their God, their marriage, and their children, and nobody else really has any say in that because that’s what they decided as a couple.

…This conversation comes up for same-race people as well because they may be from different cultures. When we talk about this issue of interracial, interfaith, and intercultural, you can have intercultural experiences with people who are racially the same with you. These are conversations are still things you’d have to have.

Lovers in their Right Mind was chosen to be part of the DreamAgo’s 2016 Plume & Pellicule screenwriting atelier. How does it feel to have been chosen for that?

I’m still happy dancing! It’s a wonderful validation of the work we wanted to do. It’s really gratifying that an international workshop believed there was something valid in the story we wanted to tell. Here’s the wonderful thing; as we’ve been going through the process and getting all of our updates on things we needed to do, one of the gentlemen we’d been corresponding with…said he was very intrigued to read our script because he’s a French man married to a Persian woman.

It said to me a couple of things; that this was not an isolated story or just a cute little love story. This was something that resonated not only in the bounds of where it’s set, in Los Angeles, but it reached someone in France and the folks of DreamAgo in Switzerland. It’s not just an LA story. It’s not just a U.S. story. It’s a global story. It goes back to what I was saying; if we’re going to be this global nation of people who understand one another and work together…it makes sense to know who we are. It’s a super special honor. Hopefully, it’ll take us far. ♦

Disability in “Star Wars”: Comparing Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker & Finn

Star Wars is, of course, highly covetable science fiction. We’ve got “tales of daring-do” (as Stan Lee would say), awesome anti-heroes, a young person on a hero’s journey, and one of the biggest villains of all time, Darth Vader. But one constant that might escape the ableist point of view is that all of the Star Wars films involve a relationship between the main character(s) and disability. Specifically, one of the central themes of the the film series is how disability comes to define and/or change the character, either taking them further along their hero’s journey or down the path to the Dark Side. The paths Anakin/Darth Vader and Luke take inform how Finn, another character with a disability, will be treated as he develops in the films after The Force Awakens. 

Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

Anakin Skywalker’s change into Darth Vader is steeped in a classic film stereotype: defining a villain by their disability. Anakin starts his villain’s journey simply enough; emotionally, his ambitions toward greatness lead him to believe that his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is failing to teach him all there is to becoming a Jedi. Anakin’s distrust of Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order as a whole (which, in fairness, have their part to play in Anakin’s descent by doing nothing to solve the problem of Anakin’s dissatisfaction within the Order) leave Anakin to become easy prey to Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine’s knowledge of the Force allows him to see that Anakin has the potential to become something much greater than what he is, and he decides to use that potential to start the Empire. Not to mention that Anakin believes Palpatine will be able to save Padme from death in childbirth, something Anakin comes to believe the Jedi wouldn’t do (because it’d be an interference with the will of the Force). You’d think with the Jedi being powerful individuals themselves, they’d want to harness all of the power Anakin has for good instead of emotionally leaving him by the wayside, but that’s a topic for a different article, an article that could also compare Anakin to Kylo Ren, who also became a member of the Dark Side due to neglect (in his case, parental neglect).

That by itself has the makings of a great showcase for a hero’s descent into evil (and it would have been great, if the scripts and character development were actually fully realized).  But the prequel series decides to ape the original trilogy by having Anakin lose an arm to Count Dooku. Anakin’s first disability is something that defines him both as an able-bodied hero, by taking a sacrifice in order to stop the Evil Sith, and as a disabled villain, a man who will eventually defect from the Order and follow Palpatine.

The loss of his arm leads Anakin to take revenge on Dooku, an act that is taught against by the Order. Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands and his head, which StarWars.com calls “one of the many turning points for Anakin.” Connecting disability to violence is something that defines the “Disabled Villain” stereotype; because a character isn’t fully able-bodied, the character then becomes angry at the world and decides to take out his or her aggression on others. (It’s also worth mentioning that before and after he loses his hand, Anakin kills the Tuskens and the entire crop of young Jedi trainees, so it’s as if his his inner discord becomes symbolized by his mechanized hand, the thing that takes him out of the “normalized” dynamic and into the space of the “Other.”)

Anakin goes deeper towards his destiny after leaving the Order and siding with Palpatine, who himself becomes disfigured by Mace Windu (after the Order finally put two and two together and realize that Palpatine has been the mastermind the entire time). During his fight with Palpatine, Windu becomes disabled as well—Anakin cuts his hand off, then Palpatine uses his Force electricity to shock Windu out of the window (which strangely has no glass at all). There is a casual quality to the way disability is conflated with evil; two individuals with disabilities are fighting against the “good guy,” who is able-bodied. The theme of inflicting pain on others because of the “evil” disability continues. As Palpatine tells Anakin at some point in the prequels, he must let his hate flow through him.

Media Smarts, ran by Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, backs up this reading of Anakin’s anger and Palpatine’s direction to embrace hate as a consequence of disability. “Throughout history physical disabilities have been used to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. More recently, characters have been portrayed as being driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their disability,” states the site. Media Smarts gives the example of the film Wild Wild West, in which Doctor Loveless has lost his legs. (The site also mentions that the TV version of Doctor Loveless uses another type of disability, dwarfism, to show villainy).

That hate Palpatine carries becomes shown as disfigurement; the hate Anakin carries becomes shown not only as a lost hand, but the loss of all four of his limbs as well as disfigurement. The final battle of the prequel trilogy features Anakin and his once-master Obi-Wan battling it out on an effects-heavy volcano. How they didn’t die just by the fumes and fire is a huge scientific and common-sensical oversight. But the ending of the fight once again conflates evil to disability. Anakin’s transformation into the Darth Vader we know comes after Obi-Wan leaves him for dead in the lava, leaving Palpatine’s droids to piece him back together inside a suit/breathing apparatus. The suit becomes the only thing keeping Anakin alive, but the suit—and Anakin’s disabilities—become symbolic of Anakin’s metamorphosis into a legendary villain. His use of the Force is one thing that struck fear into his underlings, but his classic muffled breathing through his apparatus is what audibly defines him throughout the original series and cements the erroneous relationship between disability and evil for the viewer.

What is interesting is that later on, Vader’s disability makes Vader become a different type of disability stereotype—the Victim.

Media Smarts cites Jenny Morris’ article “A Feminist Perspective” (part of the collection Framed Interrogating Disability in the Media), which examines how disability is used to make the viewer feel pathos with the character. Morris describes it as “…a metaphor…for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across, in the same way that ‘beauty’ is used. In doing this, the writer draws on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with a humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings in the reader or audience.” Media Centre cites A Christmas Carol‘s Tiny Tim and The Elephant Man‘s John Merrick as characters whose disabilities are used to garner sympathy, and the moment Luke takes off Darth Vader’s mask during his death scene is also using disability to create sympathy in the viewer. His burned and disfigured face makes him pitiable when Luke finally sees him. Now, he’s not a villain; he’s a man who has finally been redeemed and must be forgiven by Luke and the audience.

Luke Skywalker

Luke’s journey involves disability too, but his tale is laced with yet another stereotype; the “Hero.” Media Centre calls the “Hero” stereotype one involving the character overcoming their disability in order to prove their worth. Stirling Media Research Institute’s Lynne Roper wrote in her article “Disability in Media” that this stereotype is a way for characters to conform to “normal” standards “in a heroic way.” Media Centre uses superheroes like Daredevil (who is blind), Silhouette (who is partially paralyzed) and Oracle (who is a wheelchair user) as examples of the “Hero” stereotype, and Luke adheres to this stereotype as well. Luke is deep into his Jedi training by the time he comes into direct contact with Darth Vader, and his fight with Vader becomes a lynchpin moment for Luke. Vader cuts off his hand and reveals to him that he’s Luke’s father.

There are two choices Luke can make; either he gives into the Dark Side—aka become a disabled villain stereotype—like his father, or he can rise above his father’s expectations of him. Luke chooses the latter, but it’s fascinating how disability is used as means to set up a choice between good and evil in the original series, and how the prequels decide to continue this train of thought.

Finn

The theme of disability defining good and evil still endures in The Force Awakens. Towards the end of the film, Finn gets sliced up his spine by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber.

Medically speaking, Finn should have a severe spinal cord injury, most likely rendering him unable to walk or even use his arms. It’s already predestined, by evidence from the other films, that Finn’s disability will propel him even further on the good path (which could include the Jedi path, since the jury is still out on whether he’s Force sensitive).

It’s also clear by all the training John Boyega’s been doing that Finn will be walking in the film. This also ties into another theme of Star Wars: If there is a disability, it must be “normalized.” Anakin goes through excruciating pain as his fake limbs become fused to his body. Luke has a mechanical hand that seems to be linked to his nervous system, just like his father’s. It’s expected that Finn will have a mechanical spine that also has fused to his nervous system, allowing Finn to walk, run, and do other able-bodied functions. In a way, the new appendages not only “normalize” these characters post-injury, but it also suggests to the audience that they are now superhuman to a degree. They can now defy regular expectations and either become a powerful villain or The Chosen One.

Parting Thoughts

Star Wars is a fascinating film series that manages to encompass several themes that are at the root of great science fiction, the main one being that the future features those that accept others regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or disability. But, despite that ideal, the film series still showcases disability in a binary way. Either you’re a once-in-a-lifetime hero or an all-powerful villain if you’re missing a limb. You can probably assume that at some point, Kylo Ren, who wants to live up to his grandfather Darth Vader, will have a missing limb as well at some point in Episode 8. Remember: he still has to complete his training.

CW’s “Riverdale” Takes Archie Comics Out of the 1940s

As you will see in a few days on JUST ADD COLOR, I am a huge Archie Comics aficionado. Back in the mid ’90s, when I was still in middle school, I happened to pick up an Archie Comics digest from the grocery store, and fell in love with these kids’ hijinks and the art style. The more into Archie Comics I became, the more I loved it. The more I loved it, the more I started to dissect and analyze, and the more I hoped the company would grow into something beyond just reliving its glory days of the ’60s.

Since then, Archie Comics has really come into not just the 21st century, but into its own new identity as the comic book for humorous, slice-of-life teenage comedy. In many ways, the company went back to its core tenet of being about teens, for teens by becoming what it was when it first debuted in the 1940s—fresh and relevant. Archie Comics has exploded now with the new Archie and Jughead series, both of which are amazing in terms of writing and illustration, and the upcoming CW teen drama, Riverdale.

Riverdale continues Archie Comics’ obsession with relevance by rejiggering the concepts of the “America’s Favorite Teenager” and what life in the picturesque Riverdale is really about. To quote Archie Comics:

The live-action series offers a bold, subversive take on Archie, Betty, Veronica, and their friends, exploring small-town life and the darkness and weirdness bubbling beneath Riverdale’s wholesome facade. The show will focus on the eternal love triangle of Archie Andrews, girl-next-door Betty Cooper, and rich socialite Veronica Lodge, and will include the entire cast of characters from the comic books–including Archie’s rival, Reggie Mantle, and his slacker best friend, Jughead Jones.

Popular gay character Kevin Keller will also play a pivotal role. In addition to the core cast, “Riverdale” will introduce other characters from Archie Comics’ expansive library, including Josie and the Pussycats.

Let’s take a look at our group of Riverdalians (with character descriptions quoted from Archie Comics’ Riverdale posts):

Archie Andrews (played by K.J. Apa)

In an exclusive announcement, Deadline described Apa’s Archie as “an intense, conflicted teen, a boyish high school sophomore who got pumped up over the summer working construction and is now juggling the interest of several girls, as well as trying to balance his passion for writing and performing music–against the wishes of his father and his football coach.”

Josie McCoy (played by Ashleigh Murray)

Murray’s Josie is described as “a gorgeous, snooty and ambitious girl who is the lead singer for popular band Josie and the Pussycats. She has zero interest in recording any songs written by fellow teen Archie.”

Jughead Jones (played by Cole Sprouse)

Sprouse’s Jughead is described as “a heartthrob with a philosophical bent and former best friend of Archie Andrews.”

Veronica (played by Camilla Mendes)

In the exclusive announcement, Deadline described Mendes’s Vernoica as a silver-tongued high school sophomore who returns to Riverdale from New York, eager to reinvent herself after a scandal involving her father.

Betty (played by Lili Reinhart)

In an exclusive announcement, Deadline described Reinhart’s Betty as “sweet, studious, eager-to-please and wholesome, with a huge crush on her longtime best friend, Archie.”

Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch)

In the exclusive announcement, Deadline described Petsch’s Cheryl as rich, entitled, and never accountable. A manipulative mean girl who kills with kindness, she recently lost her twin brother in a mysterious accident.

Reggie Mantle (played by Ross Butler)

No official Archie Comics/Deadline character description, but we know already from the comics that Reggie is Archie’s rival in all things, including the dating department.

Dilton (played by Daniel Yang)

Again,  no official description for Dilton, but in the comics, he’s the nerdy, brilliant friend to the core Riverdale gang. He also dated Cheryl Blossom at one point in time, so don’t sleep on Dilton’s hidden mack game.

Moose Mason (played by Cody Kearsley)

Once again, no official description, but Moose is Midge Klump’s long-time boyfriend. Moose is also on the school’s wrestling team, and is often depicted as being, to use one of Wendy Williams’ favorite phrases, “less than smart.” It was only relatively recently that Moose’s depiction was scaled back and taken a bit more sensitively; he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which explains why the character often has trouble with schoolwork. Maybe his dyslexia will become a feature of his characterization in Riverdale.

Tina Patel (Olivia Ryan Stern)

No official description, but Tina is from the later wave of old-style Archie comics. Tina was introduced as the younger sister of Raj Patel, the town’s resident aspiring filmmaker. Unlike Raj, Tina was following in her parents’ footsteps of becoming a doctor, making Raj the black sheep of the family. If memory serves, she also was bumped up a grade, so she’s actually in the same grade as Raj despite being younger than him.

The adults cast so far include:

Yes, ’90s friends; that’s Mr. 90210 himself! With him as a part of the cast, this already feels like the baton of stellar teen dramas has been handed down to the next generation. Riverdale has the Luke Perry Seal of Approval.

What can we expect?: Already, we can see some ways in which Riverdale is distancing itself from the Archie stories of old while bringing the Archie Comics company further into the now. We have a multiracial, multicultural cast, with several characters cast as non-white actors, including Apa, who is Samoan-Kiwi.

But a Rainbow Coalition cast isn’t the only reason this show has my radar. As I wrote above, the show is setting up a subversive take on the Riverdale we’ve come to know and love, and if Season Zero is to be believed, the Riverdale pilot is something that must be seen to be believed. There’s murder, sleeping with a teacher, intrigue, and all sorts of soapy turns. Also, Jughead’s the narrator, which seems like a cool, Jughead-ish thing to do (he is, after all, divorced from all the drama of his friends and acts as the observer of their lives).

As much as Riverdale promises, there’s still some more that it could have done. At one point, Jughead was supposed to be played by a deaf actor. TV Line (as reported by The Mary Sue) had the official casting calls, which asked for a “hearing-impaired” actor. As far as I know, Sprouse isn’t hearing-impaired, so I wonder why the change in Jughead’s character was made. If it was made—maybe the narration we hear are Jughead’s thoughts, and perhaps Sprouse signs on screen. But still, it could have been a great opportunity for a hearing-impaired actor to get his moment. I’m not poo-pooing Sprouse’s acting ability before we’ve even seen him in the role; I wish him goodwill. I’m just sayin’, from an observer’s perspective, some could find an issue with a non-deaf person playing a deaf role, especially since there are deaf actors and actresses out there (such as Freeform’s Switched at Birth stars Marlee Matlin (also an Oscar winner), Katie Leclerc, and Sean Berdy, late night host Stephen Colbert, There Will Be Blood‘s Russell Harvard, and many others in stage theater).

Other observations: Jughead is canonically asexual in the new Jughead books. In the show, Jughead is described as a heartthrob, and that’s actually in keeping with his character, since Jughead gained a kinda heartthrob status through later runs of the old Archie books. Part of Jughead becoming attractive to girls was because he never wanted a relationship anyways, and some girl characters took at as a challenge (like Ethel, who hasn’t been cast as of yet). But parts of the fandom had also decided that Jughead was gay, which may or may not have led to issues featuring Jughead in an ill-fated love triangle of his own. Stories of Jughead in one-off relationships would then become peppered throughout the old Archie canon for whatever reason there was at the time, but Jughead had already been linked to someone in the old ’40s comics—Betty. Back then, it seemed like there was less of a love triangle between Betty, Archie, and Veronica, and more of Betty trying to disrupt Veronica and Archie’s relationship and, being desperate for any male attention, would try to seduce Jughead, who just went along with it because of his friendship with Betty.

However, with all of that said, will Jughead actively engage in relationships on Riverdale because he is a heartthrob? Or is he a heartthrob because he’s unattainable? Will Jughead become the second out asexual character on television (the first being Voodoo from USA’s Sirens)? Or, if Jughead’s asexuality doesn’t extend to the show’s canon (which it might not, since the show’s not adhering to old or new Archie stories, anyways), then will Jughead’s sexuality once again become the hot button issue of the day? One of the enduring parts of Jughead’s character is that, because he’s removes himself from the heteronormative discussion, everyone can see some element of themselves in him. You can believe he’s straight, gay, asexual, aromantic, bisexual, and any other type of sexuality, and you’d be justified in your theory. Jughead is one of those characters in entertainment who become a sexuality litmus test, and it’s fascinating to see just how everyone interprets him differently and why.

Last, Riverdale is breaking new ground by casting two actors from the AAPI spectrum as part of “the beautiful people.” Like I’ve written several times before, Asian men rarely get the heartthrob treatment, and to have Archie and Reggie played by Apa and Butler is awesome. Of course, we’ve got some caveats to discuss. Apa can easily code as “white,” which will surely help him land more leading roles than someone like Butler, who might still have to work against racist casting calls. But both Apa and Butler might face less discrimination than Yang, who is playing a character that now has a very complicated situation. Dilton is white in the comics, so having someone else represent Dilton plays into the movement to have more inclusion on screen. But, Dilton is also a nerd, so what does it mean that an Asian guy was cast as the nerd? Again, like with Sprouse, I’m not ragging on Yang getting a job, but I am an entertainment/cultural critic. I wonder what Yang will do to take the character out of the easy stereotype and into a nuanced, layered performance.

With all of that said, I’m excited to see what Riverdale holds for us. What do you think? Give your opinions in the comments section below!