Tag Archives: Asian

“Being Asian in Hollywood” is now a free e-book!

being-asian-in-hollywood

Recently I posted my longform article “Being Asian in Hollywood,” featuring several members of the Hollywood community. I’ve now compiled the article into a free e-book, just for JUST ADD COLOR readers.

The design of this e-book was inspired by the beauty and talent of Anna May Wong, and photography featuring her decorate the pages of this book in homage to her. Wong is someone who wasn’t featured prominently in this article, but it’s due to her sacrifice, and the sacrifices of other Asian actors in old Hollywood, who paved the way for today’s current crop of stars.

Here’s a look at some of the pages that you’ll see inside:

Download Being Asian in Hollywood here or click the cover in the site’s sidebar!

Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

Gospel singers take Neon Genesis Evangelion to holy heights

YouTube/screengrab
YouTube/screengrab

As a long time anime fan, I’ve heard and watched Neon Genesis Evangelion. But a confession that must be made is that while I appreciate the show, I never really got into Evangelion. But, I love the theme song almost as much as Oprah loves bread. It’s easily one of the most iconic theme songs in anime history. Now, the song has become even more iconic after a gospel group takes it to yet another awesome level.

The group, Glory Gospel Singers, appeared on an episode of Japanese singing show NHK Nodo Jiman (NHK Amateur Singing Contest), and they blew the audience away by combining their traditional gospel roots with classic anime. Check it out for yourself.

I love when I see videos featuring beautiful cross-cultural moments, and this video is certainly no exception. What did you think about this video? And if you’re a Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, what do you love about the show? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Melissa Villaseñor and the Importance of Latinx Intersectionality

FIRST IMPRESSIONS -- Season:1 -- Pictured: Melissa Villasenor -- (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)
FIRST IMPRESSIONS — Season:1 — Pictured: Melissa Villasenor — (Photo by: Joseph Viles/USA Network)

We just got finished praising Melissa Villaseñor for breaking the glass ceiling for Latinas on Saturday Night Live, and not nearly a week later, we’re already going onto the next with Villaseñor in our rear-view mirrors because of some tweets she made on her now-private Twitter page.

I had just written about Villaseñor exactly eight days ago as of the time of this post. And before my post could even become old news, Buzzfeed along with other outlets, had broken the news that Villaseñor has had a long history of tweeting insensitive, racist statements. Not even real jokes per se; there was literally no way to find what she wrote amusing in any form.

What am I talking about, you might ask? Here you go:

Villaseñor’s tweets make me reflect on something we should stay cognizant of at all times; that there’s more than just one type of Latinx identity and that Afro-Latinx face a multi-layered form of discrimination and racism, some of which us Americans, black white or otherwise, don’t even know about.

America typically denies the multi-layered experiences of Afro-Latinx people, opting for the idea America usually adopts when thinking of Latinx and/or Hispanic people; a person who is either European-looking or tan-skinned. This denial is clearly an undercurrent in Villaseñor’s tweets, but it’s also an undercurrent in other Latin-American and South American countries as well. In many ways, the discrimination black diasporic people face in these countries are linked to America’s own issues with race-based colonialism.

Take for instance Mexico. Americans typically don’t think of “black people” when they think of Mexico, but they are there. Black Mexicans have never fully been integrated; you don’t see many (or any) black Mexican actors and actresses in the telenovelas that make it to American shores. We also don’t hear of black Mexican singers or painters or leaders. Mexico itself hasn’t come to terms with its own history, in many cases refusing to believe black Mexican citizens about their own heritage. Clemente Jesus Lopez, head of the Oaxaca state office for black Mexicans, told the BBC that he can remember two instances in which the Mexican government didn’t believe black people were a part of Mexico, both instances involving women.

“One was deported to Honduras and the other to Haiti because the police insisted that in Mexico there are no black people. Despite having Mexican ID, they were deported.” Lopez said that Mexican consulates were able to bring the women back, but the Mexican government itself offered no apology or compensation. However, for the first time in 2015, citizens were able to check “black” on the Mexican interim census, so Mexico is showing some subtle movement of the needle, but that’s only the starting point.

Related: #DifferenceMakers: Janel Martinez’s “Ain’t I Latina” Reps for Afro-Latinas Left Out of the Conversation

It’s also worth pointing out that there are also Asian Latinx and Asian South Americans as well. Asian Mexicans make up a small percentage of Mexico’s population, for example. And Brazil has the largest percentage of Japanese citizens outside of Japan itself; many of whom we saw during this past Olympics winning for Brazil. There are also quite a few Asian-Hispanic/Asian Latinx American actors in Hollywood, including Kirk Acevedo, Harry Shum, Jr., Tatyana Ali, Tyson Beckford (both of whom are also Afro-Latinx as well), Enrique Iglesias, Bruno Mars (who is also Ashkenazi Jewish), Kelis (who also has African American heritage), and many more. 

While Latin America and South America have their own work to do, America has some things it needs to suss out for itself, and Villaseñor’s mistakes can be used a learning point for most of us.

The fact that we, as a melting pot nation, don’t generally recognize part of the black diaspora as part of the Latinx identity, is something that speaks directly to our ideas about race, ideas that are reflected squarely in Villaseñor’s now-deleted tweets. We, and I guess Mexico and other countries as well, expect for blackness to be a self-contained, monolithic identity. Blackness doesn’t just equal one thing; blackness can be multilayered. You can be Afro-Latinx, just as much as you can be a black Native American, blasian, and of white and black heritage. So when we (and Villaseñor) label “black” as just being one thing, we’re erasing entire groups of people. The erasure is doubly so when blackness is equated with being ugly and subhuman.

Thankfully, there are people out there doing the hard work of providing a space for Afro-Latinx to feel included, such as Janel Martinez’ Ain’t I Latina?, which focuses on news and entertainment centered around the African diaspora throughout Latin and South America. But each of us can do our part to end this discrimination. First, we can start with addressing our own ideas about what constitutes blackness. Second, we can demand those who are figures in society to think outside of themselves and think of those they’ll impact the most with their words. For some like Villaseñor, if you’re going to become a role model for other Latinx coming up after you, shouldn’t you make sure you’re inclusive and represent all Latinx?

Third, With those of us who are championing diversity or getting more diversity on the screen, we need to ask ourselves if we are inviting all voices to the table, and not just the voices we think represent the whole of a people. When we fight for diversity, we need to make sure all racial and cultural experiences are accounted for. When those of us in power to cast actors in an inclusive way, we need to make sure that our idea of “Latinx character” includes all races and ethnicities, since Latin America is multicultural as well. Those of us who are media creators need to make sure that we think outside of what we’ve been told a Latinx character should look like.

Ultimately, though, while we can all learn lessons from Villaseñor’s transgressions, the biggest lesson should be for Villaseñor herself; now that she’s in the public eye, she’d better what she says as well as what she tweets.

What do you think about Villaseñor? Give your opinions in the comments section below.

Three #UnderratedAsian Male Models You’ll Daydream Over

Daniel Liu (VFiles/YouTube screengrab)
Daniel Liu (VFiles/YouTube screengrab)

#UnderratedAsian, created by NerdyAsians, is one hashtag and Twitter account worth following. Not only will you learn about some of America’s little known MVPs in the arts, diplomacy, entertainment, politics, advocacy, sports, etc., but you’ll also see some of the entries by other Twitter accounts like the one for media advocacy site Kulture. Kulture’s Twitter account is a huge supporter of #UnderratedAsian, and while Kulture is utilizing the popular hashtag to educate, you can also get some eye candy from it as well, such as the three male models featured in this post.

Without saying it explicitly, #UnderratedAsian is also smashing another stereotype: that Asian men aren’t sexy. Indeed, Asian men are sexy. You read it right here if you haven’t read it anywhere else. This point is being emphasized because Long Duk Dong is still what too many folks think is the true representation of Asian men.

Amy Sun for Everyday Feminism wrote about the stereotypes facing Asian men in her article, “4 Lies We Need to Stop Telling About Asian-American Men”:

“Media has traditionally painted Asian-American men as sidekicks who serve as comic relief (see: Ken Jeong in any of his roles, such as The Hangover), are extremely nervous or silent around girls (see: The Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali, an Indian astrophysicist who is unable to speak to women for six seasons), are short and deeply accented (see: Han in 2 Broke Girls), and sidekick samurai warriors (yes, apparently, you can be Asian and still be a sidekick in a movie about samurai; I’m talking to you, The Last Samurai).

Let’s get over these awful stereotypes! Let’s start by oogling at these dudes.

Hao Yun Xiang

haha😁😁🐝😄

A photo posted by 郝允祥 HAO (@haoyunxiang) on

morning~🐝🐝 #dolcegabbana #dgmen

A photo posted by 郝允祥 HAO (@haoyunxiang) on

chivalrous expert?😁😁

A photo posted by 郝允祥 HAO (@haoyunxiang) on

Sung Jin Park

Bloody red. #myjersey #football #MCU #맨유

A photo posted by SUNG JIN ☪ (@teriyakipapi) on

간만에 스파링하고 5년 더 늙음 두통은 써비쓰

A photo posted by SUNG JIN ☪ (@teriyakipapi) on

어색하네요 ㅠㅠ

A photo posted by SUNG JIN ☪ (@teriyakipapi) on

Bawssing up.

A photo posted by SUNG JIN ☪ (@teriyakipapi) on

Daniel Liu

Happy.

A photo posted by Daniel Liu (@dannythecowboy) on

Pausing for a moment to allow Blue Steel to meet Blue Suede. @poloralphlauren @fordmodels #MeetMeAtPolo

A photo posted by Daniel Liu (@dannythecowboy) on

You want more fine Asian dudes? Check out this Buzzfeed list from 2014. Use that as your jumping off point. You’re welcome.

Who’s your favorite #UnderratedAsian actor, model, or activist? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

#RepresentYourStory: Shaun Lau of No, Totally! on Overcoming Self-Hate

no-totally-logo

“The worship of whiteness as a person of color requires and encourages self-hatred.” Does this statement resonate with you?

This is part of the personal story of Shaun Lau, creator of podcast site “No, Totally!”, a site that actually was the genesis of this #RepresentYourStory project.

As I’ve written on the #RepresentYourStory page, this project started as a thought after I was on an episode of Shaun’s podcast. On that episode, I talked about my own struggles with identity and race. My struggles were more about not feeling accepted and/or exoticized by other black people around me, leaving me feeling unsupported despite my deep-rootedness in the black experience. Shaun’s story, on the other hand, is of facing internalized racism.

Shaun’s story isn’t unusual; there are many people out there who have had to come to terms with their own feelings of self-hate and the ways in which they relate to themselves in a society that praises whiteness.

What is interesting is that there are parallels between our two stories; while our own journeys might have started at different places, the feelings of ostracism, loss, and the desire to have a sense of identity are very much the same. The desire to feel “normal” is something that drives a lot of us, and that desire manifests in many forms.

Read Shaun’s story, and if you identified with him, leave a comment and share it on Twitter and Facebook. Also, take a listen to my episode of “No, Totally!” and share it with your friends if it resonated with you!

Family members sometimes call me a “banana,” because an Asian-American who consumes white American culture as readily as Asian culture is often seen as inherently treasonous; like a banana, you’re yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.

The name never bothered me, to be honest, but finally understanding, years later, the reason it didn’t bother me was horrifying: I took “banana” as a compliment because it meant that my “true self” was white, and I didn’t see a problem with that. To be brutally honest, I secretly exalted in the knowledge that any kind of inherent whiteness made me automatically better than the rest of my family.

Nothing I encountered until my thirties challenged this internalization of white superiority, which is a kind of decaying of the soul. The worship of whiteness as a person of color requires and encourages self-hatred. I remember going to movies, identifying with the white protagonist, and then experiencing massive deflation at seeing my Asian features reflected in the theater’s gigantic glass doors on the way out. I’ve blamed myself for not being white with nearly every breath I’ve ever taken.

The process of scrubbing white worship from my psyche over the past few years has exposed its converse: condescension towards my Asian background, upbringing, and culture. Accepting that my estrangement from any kind of Asian-American community has been my fault is a work in progress, and untangling all of it without falling into old, familiar habits of self-hatred is a puzzle I’m nowhere near solving.

If I could relive my life, I’d do everything I could to recognize that culture is deeply personal. The ethnic boundaries around different cultures in a country as diverse as the United States are malleable, in my opinion; it’s well within our power to respect where we come from while engaging with cultures that aren’t historically our own. I wouldn’t be so quick to believe that expertise in American culture requires a kind of monogamous, Eurocentric engagement. I’d know that any culture requiring self-destruction, self-hatred, and self-erasure isn’t worth obeying in the first place.

Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Share your story of self-acceptance at monique@colorwebmag.com, or fill out the #RepresentYourStory questionnaire! Read more about #RepresentYourStory here

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

Oscars Fallout: Many Sound Off on Program’s Stereotypical Asian Jokes

Yesterday, tons of people gave their two cents on Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue. The monologue itself has been met with a range of emotions, from delight to disgust (you can read my opinion here). But it’s the jokes outside of the monologue that made people justifiably upset, especially since the jokes were a part of a night dedicated towards ending the diversity glass ceiling in Hollywood. Towards the end of the night, two tasteless jokes reared their ugly heads, and both made fun of Asians.

First, Sacha Baron Cohen, as his poser character Ali G., crudely compared the Minions to Asian men by using the phrase “little yellow people” and invoking sexual stereotyping.

Apparently, Baron Cohen was supposed to do his bit with Olivia Wilde straight, but he had his wife, actress Isla Fisher, sneak in his Ali G. costume. “The Oscars sat me down beforehand and said they didn’t want me to do anything out of order, they wanted me to actually just present it as myself,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain (as reported by the Guardian). “But luckily my wife put on the Ali G beard in the disabled toilets and I managed to get away with it.” In order to put the whole costume on while in the bathroom, they pretended Baron Cohen had food poisoning. According to what Baron Cohen said, Rock gave him “the thumbs up” to go ahead with the stunt after meeting with Rock to quickly pitch him his idea.

Second, when Rock opened the part of the show usually dedicated to introducing the accountants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he introduced three Asian kids. While the kids were cute, the joke wasn’t.

“As they clutched briefcases, they visually illustrated the stereotype that Asians are diligent workers who excel at math,” wrote the New York TimesMelena Ryzik. “‘If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,’ Mr. Rock added, a punch line interpreted as a reference to child labor in Asia.”

These jokes were tone-deaf, seeing how the entire tone of the night was one berating Hollywood for its tone-deafness when it comes to black actors and actresses. At worst, the jokes showed how there are implicit biases even in intra-racial and intra-ethnic relations that need to be deleted. As pointed out in yesterday’s “5 of the Top Moments from the Oscars” post, it would have been great if Rock had discussed how all minorities are marginalized in Hollywood, since that is actually what #OscarsSoWhite is about. To quote #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign from her exclusive interview with JUST ADD COLOR:

I think it’s unnecessarily limiting and I think it’s unfortunate that they can’t get out of that box for themselves because I’m not in that box…It’s not clear to me why people think that is. I don’t know if it’s because I’m black and they can’t see past who I am and understand that I’m multifaceted, or if it’s just easier for them to think in binary terms. But that’s not what #OscarsSoWhite is about at all. Race is just one portion of it; it’s all marginalized communities, and within race, it’s not just black people; it’s definitely about Asian people. It ‘s definitely about Latinos and Latinas and Hispanics. It’s about everyone who should be represented on the screen.

As Rebecca Sun for The Hollywood Reporter points out, the Oscars welcomed Asian stars Byung-hun Lee, Priyanka Chopra, Dev Patel and other POC stars as presenters for many reasons (which can make up its own post), one of them being that they are also a part of the large demographic the Academy (and by extension, Hollywood itself) should represent more, a demo that obviously isn’t limited only to black people. While black actors and actresses don’t get cast as much as they should, Asian, Latino and Native actors and actresses get cast at an even smaller rate:

What’s equally as sad is that Rock had proven himself to be the right guy to take on Hollywood for its transgressions, both in his career and, by several accounts, earlier that night in his monologue.

“For most of the Oscars, Chris Rock proved himself once again to be a dynamic truth-teller abut systemic racism, managing not only to make pointed comedy out of #OscarsSoWhite but to keep it front and center long after his biting opening monologue. Then, about two-thirds through, he took a break to make an Asian joke,” wrote Lowen Liu for Slate. Jeff Yang wrote for Quartz about how he flipped in between the #JusticeforFlint event and coverage of the Oscars, ready to be entertained by Rock’s wit. “[W]hile I had decided to refrain from watching, the prospect of bringing the pain to a theater full of Hollywood’s most cream-colored creme de la creme was awfully tempting. And so, I cheated: I kept a tab open during his monologue and monitored the reactions of my friends to his blistering assault on the Academy Awards’ embarrassing whiteness,” he wrote. “…But my amusement was shortlived.”

Many actors, actresses, and even NBA star Jeremy Lin tweeted their disapproval and disappointment in the jokes.

So far, there’s been no word from Rock or his camp re: his Asian jokes.

This controversy has ignited conversation about the role minority activists should play. As Al Jazeera asks, “Should minorities advocate for one another?”

As stated in the Oscars article Monday, if I was tasked with hosting the Oscars, I would have made sure to advocate for all minorities and oppressed people, because we’re all in this fight together. I wouldn’t have specifically only discussed the black acting pool, because the #OscarsSoWhite issue affects more than just the black acting pool. However, that’s how I’d do it. The question of if minorities should advocate for one another should be a resounding yes. The unspoken question, though, seems to be if Chris Rock should have been (at least on Oscar night) that particular minority activist who does advocate for others. As to what Rock feels about his own performance and how he should proceed in the future can be answered by Rock himself, but the disappointment the jabs at Asian stereotypes caused is something that will linger for a while and, hopefully (like all disappointment should) lead to increased action to make sure all people properly represented by the media (including jokes).

What did you think about the off-putting jokes? Give your opinions in the comments section!