August 21, 2016

WANG | For Asian Actors, Not Much Has Changed

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In my spare time, I like to watch ABC’s standout program Fresh off the Boat, laugh, and forget about the perils of school for a moment. The show’s excellently casted: Constance Wu is the star, her motherly charm matched by Randall Park’s sheepish humor. Hudson Yang plays the awkward son growing in spades who’s rap obsessed but a poor student, and Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen round out the family as the intelligent minions. They’re hilarious, relatable and straight up dorky.

They’re also the exception. Asian representation is paltry in an industry that’s been leveled with whitewashing accusations. In a recent New York Times article that generated a lot of buzz and hot takes, the quartet of Daniel Dae Kim, Constance Wu, Aziz Ansari and BD Wong stood dignified, heads tilted under the headline “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting For Visibility: They Will Not Be Ignored.” It was the culmination of the rise of the generation’s most talented Asian actors, from Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire to Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, who, on a raised platform, have begun to speak out against whitewashing in Hollywood.

The hypocrisy is what stings the most. It’s hard not to notice that when Hollywood tries to embrace all spectrums of society — whether it be trumpeting the first Disney lesbian couple in the upcoming Finding Dory, casting John Boyega as the lead in the re-re-booted Star Wars movies, or having Chris Rock host the Oscars and poke fun at the whiteness in movies — we’re still talking the same talk when it comes to Asian representation, and the same old banalities are being tossed casually around.

Take Mr. Rock for instance. He was mostly brilliant as this year’s Oscars host. He sprinkled in a few #OscarsSoWhite references, skewered the academy for not nominating films such as Creed that featured black actors, made the audience squirm with a Jada Pinkett Smith reference, and even managed a Stacey Dash cameo that flew straight over everybody’s head. As an opener, he was funny and altogether serious, a line that isn’t easy to walk when the topic is a lack of diversity in Hollywood.

But even as he managed to stir up comical hysteria and somber reflection, his progression inverted into a regressive act: He brought out a trio of Asian kids in tuxedos as faux accountants, a gag that that referenced the stereotype that Asians were good at math. Then he took it a step further by saying “If anyone is offended about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone, also made by these kids.”

This isn’t to rag on Chris Rock: His stand up acts are great, and his appearance on “Blame Game” on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is hands down the funniest skit in rap history. He’s a comedian who pushes the lines, I get that. It’s just frustrating that amidst pleas for diversity in Hollywood, he forgot about a certain subsection of people.

But what’s worse is the directors who seem to have an aversion to casting Asian actors in their movies. For the past decade, the percentage of minorities in films has stagnated in the low 20s, removing any sense of progression. And the justification for all this is off: Famously, Ridley Scott defended his whitewashing of his film Exodus, a biblical film that cast Christian Bale as Moses, with this enlightening quote: “I can’t mount a film of this budget […] and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

Bankability is the key factor in whitewashing. When Emma Stone was cast as a character of Asian descent in Aloha, I can imagine the only color of importance was green. The same could be said for the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Celtic mystic that guides Dr. Strange in the new Marvel venture, a character that was Tibetan in the comics.

But this doesn’t hold up. Plenty of Asian actors have carried films — James Shigeta in Crimson Kimono, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their assortment of acrobatic action flicks, and even John Cho and Kal Penn propelled their Harold and Kumar series to financial success. There have been failures, to be sure, but then again, dubbed A-Listers such as Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Reynolds have had more box office bombs than successes.

There’s also a self-fulfilling path that Hollywood has created by refusing to cast Asian actors: How can one become bankable if they’re not given the chance in major films? The Hollywood Patricians bemoan the lack of Asian movie stars, but by not casting them, they’ve brought it upon only themselves. Stars only become stars when given the chance. Who was Leo before What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Who was Tom Cruise before Risky Business?

In the end, as viewers, the lacking diversity is a loss of progression. But Hollywood loses out too. A bankable international movie star is a boon globally, a fact that’s growing in importance as international crowds continue to flock to American movies. Thankfully, Hollywood doesn’t have to look far: The next Asian movie star is already here — they just need a chance.

William Wang is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wwang@cornell.edu. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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