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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

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“Fresh off the Boat”: The Long Duk Dong Effect

The recent Fresh off the Boat episode, “Good Morning Orlando,” showed the benefits of having a second season. Once a show gets to their second season, especially a show as culturally aware as Fresh off the Boat is, the show’s writers (and perhaps the stars themselves) can start to address things that got on their nerves during the first season (and probably, throughout their lives). Fresh off the Boat did that by having Louis go on local morning television to promote his restaurant and do funny impressions, only to come back home to a disapproving Jessica who uttered the damning name of “Long Duk Dong.” Yes, she said he Long Duk Donged all Asian Americans because he decided to make two white anchors laugh.

If you think Long Duk Dong is just a harmless character from Sixteen Candles, then you don’t know Long Duk Dong. Long Duk Dong is to Asians as Uncle Tom is to my people, African Americans. Long Duk Dong is the character that shucks and jives to the white audience’s amusement, shaming all of his people who are cognizant of the fact that he is the on Asian character that made it through the cracks to even be on the big screen without ripping off Bruce Lee (because no one can capture the magic and mystery that is the one, true martial artist/philosopher/Cha Cha dance master Bruce Lee).

Just like how many African Americans have been conflicted about supporting certain characters, movies, and TV shows (pick your poison), I’m sure many Asian Americans were conflicted about Long Duk Dong and the actor who played him, Gedde Watanabe, a Japanese-American actor playing a Chinese stereotype, which probably adds insult to injury. (Interestingly enough, Watanabe went on to voice Ling in Mulan, but I don’t know if that makes things better since Ling was also comic relief.) The question is this: Is it right or wrong to support or not support an Asian actor even if he’s making a mockery of himself and the group of people he represents onscreen? I think it’s fair to say that even though many folks have their own answer, the consensus was soundly against favor of Watanabe, and as Jessica reminded Louis, Long Duk Dong has become the marker of what you don’t want to be. You don’t want to be thought of as a sellout.

Fresh off the Boat is in the unique position to address this, because there are many folks out there who might understand why being called an “Uncle Tom” is wrong, but might not even be aware of why Long Duk Dong is problematic. America is very hypersensitive to black issues, in the sense that black Americans were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. But because America equates “diversity” to just “black,” a lot of the issues concerning other minority voices gets shuffled under the rug for no reason. Fresh off the Boat can give another perspective to a conversation that’s constantly happening on shows like black-ish—that having limited or no representation in the media can lead to the one individual that does make big having to represent the entirety of their race. For a week, Louis was in that tough spot of representing an entire group of people without the luxury of just being himself. And after Jessica went on and on about how he should be approachable, but serious, but discuss issues affecting Asian Americans, but still be jovial, but not make too many jokes, but be polite, but not overtly and stereotypically polite, etc., etc., both realized how much of an impossible burden it is to put on just one person.

Fresh off the Boat addressed this not only to add more to the conversation about a lack of representation on television, but to also provide a bit of meta commentary to some of the frustrations that the show had about being the first Asian American television show in about 20 years. Because they were the first, they were getting unnecessary (in my opinion) annoyance from folks who felt the show didn’t represent them and their experience. Well, to that I say: DUH. It’s not supposed to represent everyone’s experiences, because, while there are some shared cultural experiences, not everyone’s upbringing is the same. My upbringing is different from any of my cousins’ upbringings, even though we’re all black. My life isn’t theirs, so if I told my story on the big screen, they don’t have a right to get offended just because something that happened to them isn’t in my story. I hate to invoke The Cosby Show after the horrors of Bill Cosby, but The Cosby Show played that “Perfect Minority Family” game, too. To everyone, including a lot of black people, the Huxtables represented the perfect black family, but some black people were mad that the show didn’t represent them or that the show felt unattainable in real life somehow. The Cosby Show however, was built to portray a perfect life; Fresh off the Boat was never meant to portray perfection; it just happened to be the only show of its kind at the time.

#Freshofftheboat addressed its frustrations about once being the only Asian show on TV. Click To Tweet

Thankfully, though, we now have Dr. Ken on ABC and, for what it’s worth, Into the Badlands on AMC (even though I’ve started to hear complaints about that show, too). There are beginning to be different interpretations of Asian life on screen (and there would have been more if GLENN WASN’T KILLED ON THE WALKING DEAD! There’s already a problem with killing black guys on this doggone show, and now you’re going to kill the Asian guy, too? I don’t care if he died in the comic book; the show has already taken liberties with canon! I dare to think what could happen to Michonne or Sasha!). Finally, Fresh off the Boat doesn’t have to carry the load of the world on its shoulders. Louis can do his Donald Duck and Rocky impressions and not have to be thought of as a Long Duk Dong. He’s just goofy, lovable Louis, an individual, not the Leader of the Asian Delegation (to reference that Dave Chappelle skit that’s now become part of the fabric of millennial America).

Last thing to note: I liked how this episode slyly played with the fact that people automatically assume that black people have to date black people. As if we just like someone because they’re black. “Black” doesn’t override “good personality” or “has a nice car.” Again, it goes back to being thought of as a representative of a group instead of an individual. Poor Walter, the only black kid in the group, still has to deal with well-meaning microagressions against him from his friends, who think that because he’s black, he has to automatically go with the black girl. Like goes with like, even though they as white kids can think of themselves as individuals. Yet, they still didn’t see themselves dating the black girl because they assumed she’d immediately go with Walter, aka she doesn’t have free will to choose who she’d like to be with because she’s a minority girl. And if they did decide to be together (which we was wasn’t the case at all), it doesn’t mean they chose each other because they’re both the black kids. As Walter said, “I like her, but [her race] is unrelated.” Basically, the lesson is that if you have black friends, don’t assume they just date black people. They can date anyone, just like you can.

What did you think of the episode? Give your opinions below!

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Screencap of Fresh off the Boat.
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The COLOR Fall TV Schedule!

It’s getting close to the fall TV season, so I spent part of the weekend actually developing my fall TV viewing/reviewing/recapping schedule (instead of what I usually do, which is wing everything the weekend before fall TV starts).

So, for everyone who loves reading my recaps and viewpoints on TV (and like interacting with me with my live-tweeting), there’s THE OFFICIAL COLOR SCHEDULE!

(All times listed are CT since I’m in the central time zone)

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"Fresh Off the Boat" S1 Post-Mortem Pt. 2: Will Eddie Huang's Voiceovers Stick Around?

I’ve thought long and hard over the past few weeks (which were spent not rewatching the series, since I forgot I had to pack for my big move), and I’ve thought about all of my positives and critiques of this season of Fresh Off the Boat. I think most of my criticisms were said in the first part of this post, but at the time, Eddie Huang hadn’t used Twitter to dig an even deeper hole for himself.

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Fall TV: Returns, Moves and Other News

Tons of TV news to discuss! There’s so much of it that it’s overwhelming, so I’m just going to limit it to the shows that I recap heavily on this site, EmpireSleepy Hollow and Fresh Off the Boat. I do recap black-ish for Entertainment Weekly; since I do recap it, let me just state upfront that black-ish has been renewed for a second season. Okay, onto the stuff that COLOR recaps. 

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