This month is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s fitting timing considering the news of the past few months chronicling the rise of hate crimes against AAPI people in the United States thanks to misinformation about the coronavirus, misplaced rage, and good old-fashioned racism. The violence has prompted a number of AAPI celebrities to speak up and out about the Asian American experience in the United States.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu has been one of those vocal actors, penning a poignant guest piece in March for Variety speaking of his parents and directly to the people who just stand by while violence happens:
“For decades, I’ve watched as you’ve regarded them with impatience, cold indifference and a total lack of compassion. I’ve seen cashiers, servers, transit operators, bank tellers and customs officers speak much too quickly on purpose as if it pained them to have to spend another second of their lives conversing with my parents. I’ve heard people mock everything from their accent and their cooking to the shape of their eyes. Of course, I’ve also heard the classic “go back to China” more times than I can count.”
Veteran actor Daniel Dae Kim has been at the frontlines of the fight for longer than most in the industry, championing Asian inclusivity in Hollywood and fighting the rising tide of anti-AAPI hate. It’s become as much a full-time job for him as his acting career and he’s been tireless in his efforts to raise awareness with eloquent commentary like this:
But along with pieces about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence, one good thing that has come of it is that it’s also prompted AAPI talent, film critics, and others to speak out about the growing desire and necessity to see greater AAPI representation and true inclusion in Hollywood. Their vocal push couldn’t come at a more needed time: Just this week, the LA Times published a study from USC’s famed Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and led by sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen and USC associate professor Stacy L. Smith that took a look at AAPI representation in movies and TV. The entire study is well worth reading, but overall, the report was abysmal: In studying the 1,300 top-grossing films released between 2007-2019, the researchers discovered only 44 of those films featured AAPI characters as leads or co-leads – and 14 out of 44 of those movies, the lead was Dwayne Johnson. 40% of the films had no AAPI representation at all.
To shed some light on this complex issue, we rounded up some brilliant pieces from Asian and Pacific Islander actors, directors, and film critics to shine a spotlight on the changing face of AAPI representation in Hollywood.
Simu Liu through Josh St. Clair – Simu Liu Responds To Criticism He Was ‘Too Ugly’ To Play Shang-Chi
In another candid and self-reflective interview, soon-to-be Marvel star Simu Liu opens up about the rampant criticism he got from China when cast as Marvel’s first Asian lead superhero that he was too ugly to step into the part, a stark reflection on the fact that a number of Asian-Americans (or Asian-Canadians, in Liu’s case) are often bombarded by two worlds:
“’I got a ton of trolls,’” Liu, the Men’s Health June cover star, tells us about the months following his casting. “’They’d leave Chinese comments on my page, and I’d be so excited to translate them, because I thought ‘ooh they must be voicing their support.’ And [instead] it would be like, ‘Your face looks like a dog’s anus, you don’t deserve this role.’”
Kelly Marie Tran – New Hollywood Podcast with Dino-Ray Ramos and Amanda N’Duka
On Deadline’s New Hollywood Podcast, The Last Jedi and Raya and the Last Dragon star Kelly Marie Tran talked about how Raya can strengthen unity in the Asian community:
“In this special extra episode of Deadline’s New Hollywood Podcast, Tran talked about her journey to Hollywood and how she did not let social media Star Wars trolls stop her shine. She also talks how Raya and the Last Dragon speaks to the need for unity among the Asian American community and allies during a time when they are being faced with acts of violence.”
Ron Seoul-Oh sat down to talk to rising star Henry Golding on what it was like to be the first Asian man to play G.I. Joe icon Snake Eyes, and what it means for Asian representation on screen, with Golding speaking on the impact it will have:
“I think the role itself…the entire cast is phenomenal. We have the whole gambit of around the world Asians. For me being the title role of Snake Eyes, it was a real honor….To think that once this film comes out, there’s gonna be kids out there on the playground pretending to be me, pretending to be Storm Shadow, running around with ninja stars and plastic swords, it’s so heartwarming. And for them to believe, ‘Hey, I can be the lead of a huge franchise like that,’ and it be normalized.”
Seoul-Oh also had a great interview with Marvel comic book artist Dike Ruan on his style as an artist and why he’s literally the perfect person to be doing the art for Marvel’s excellent new Shang-Chi series:
“[I]t’s really exciting! I think is finally time for pop culture and the American industry to have a valid and famous Asian character. I feel like I’m giving birth to Shang-Chi for the first time, in some kind of way. I hope this will be just the beginning of a more conscious way to represent the Asian community inside cultural products; not just for the Asian community itself, but for every fan of these products!”
Laura Sirikul – Action-Filled ‘Kung Fu’ Reboot is Relatable for Asian Americans
Laura Sirkiul writes about how the CW’s new Kung Fu series, a gender-swapped reboot of the 1970s series starring David Carradine, is a relatable story and sentiment for so many Asian Americans at a particularly important time:
“The set dressing to reflect San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown was well done. With a show named Kung Fu, it is much appreciated to display the beauty of Chinatown. Oftentimes, movies and television shows present Chinatown as this dirty and unwelcomed place, but in this show, the viewers see what many Chinese American residents see in their own city — the beauty and personality of Chinatown. From the clothing to the tea to the herbal shops and even the community center, Chinatown is presented as a community that actually cares for each other. This is especially necessary during the current climate toward Asian Americans.”
Though not specifically related to Hollywood, Jeff Yang’s piece on the damaging trope of ingrained Black and Asian conflict is certainly something that pops up in movies and TV, and is necessary and urgent nonetheless:
“…And then, inevitably, the identity of the perpetrator is exposed. Sometimes a freeze-frame is all it takes. Sometimes the disclosure comes later, from a second video taken at another angle, or a security camera, or a police mug shot. When the face we see revealed is Black or Brown, it serves as support for a narrative that some seem highly motivated to advance: that the primary threat Asians face is from other people of color.”
In his lovely and thoughtful piece, Nguyen Le shines a spotlight and some love at the amazing women of Bong Joon Ho’s filmography and how they upend the regrettably lowly perception a number of Asian films hold about women – or any cultures at all, really:
“In Asian cultures, diasporic or at-homeland — or any cultures really, on screen and real life — Officer Kwon is representative of the regrettably lowly perception of women. She’d be related to the wives who are doing way more tasks than their husbands in domestic sequences of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, such as Cure and Creepy, women who evoke images of overworking Japanese mothers and the macabre concept of karoshi. She’d be the women in misogynistic Vietnamese adages like “Chồng chúa vợ tôi” (“Husband’s the lord, wife’s the servant”), or those branding women-driven films “trend chasers” who are packing the locally popular film-reviewing page Phê Phim. Critics recently called out the page, its creators, and followers for repeated episodes of misogyny — on top of anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ and other incendiary attitudes — prompting a lengthy apology paired with a frame of The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent during his “die a hero…” speech. These are just a few examples of the many already out there.”
Emmy-nominated producer Keli Goff got together six female writers of color to discuss creating for film and TV and maintaining their authentically diverse voices in the worst year ever:
“As an Asian woman and creator, I’m sobered by the responsibility of this moment but also fired up by the opportunity. We wield the power as TV writers to seed empathy by planting people who look like us into your very living rooms. You’ll see we laugh, we cry, we eat, we play, we talk, we fight, we fall in love. Invite us in to tell you our own stories, and maybe we’ll find some common ground because there is power in the ordinary. While a few Asian-centered shows have made it to air, the journalist Mo Ryan pointed out they focus on martial arts and/or our historic suffering — in other words, our otherness. But when I and other Asian creators develop shows with Asian leads, our execs ask us why the characters are Asian if they don’t do Asian things. In the show I am creating now for a streamer, one of the leads is an Asian American businesswoman gutted by her husband’s affair. She cries, she rages, she argues with her teenage daughter. She’s flawed. She’s human. Her favorite dish is rice and beans. Put our ordinary characters onscreen, and in them maybe America will see our humanity.”
More on that USC Annenberg study, this time focusing on the harmful stereotypes too many movies perpetuate about Asians, even when they do have a major on-screen role:
“In 2019, over a quarter of Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) characters in the year’s top 100 movies at the box office were dead by the end of the movie, and all but one died violently. This is just one of a slew of harmful tropes about API people and communities that many Hollywood creators continue to perpetuate on-screen.”
StarWars.com Staff – A Conversation With Lucasfilm Legend Doug Chiang
StarWars.com sat down with legendary designer and head of the Lucasfilm art department Doug Chiang to talk about his life as an Asian American and learning to accept his cultural heritage:
“Growing up, it was one of those things where I didn’t have any real strong Asian role models to look up to. When I got into high school, the amazing thing was that the shop teacher was Japanese American, a teacher named Tom Nakamoto. He was really well-respected. He was liked by everybody because he was the shop teacher. He was one of my first role models because I finally saw somebody who looked like me who was actually being respected by the kids. So I tried to be like him as much as I could.”
Filmmaker Bao Tran talks about the fight to get his recently-released feature film, The Paper Tigers, cast with Asian actors instead of bowing to the Hollywood pressure to whitewash all the roles:
“While their cash gift didn’t officially count toward our Kickstarter goal (which we eventually met and surpassed), my aunties’ words carried a significant weight of its own. ‘You represent…’
You represent our hopes and our dreams, the reason we escaped oppression and a war-torn home for safety and an opportunity to live. Here I thought I was making a goofy comedy about out-of-shape kung fu fighters who couldn’t touch their toes anymore, and now all of a sudden I have the weight of all my ancestors watching and judging to see if their sacrifice was truly worth it. So hey, no pressure.”
In this slightly older, but still relevant piece, Swara Ahmed writes about the specific challenges facing South and West Asians who often get hit with the double hurdle of being both Asian and Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) in Hollywood:
“Systemically, MENA actors are not allowed to be heroes or protagonists. Even when we are, it’s often still in a white-gazed Orientalist setting. Aladdin 2019, for all its issues, at least allowed roles for MENA actors in a prominent, multi-million dollar franchise, to not be (mostly) in villainously stereotypical roles. While there was certainly Orientalism abound, at least the characters were mostly portrayed positively. That’s a break from the norm, where MENA actors in regular prominent film roles are almost non-existent, with rare exceptions like Sofia Boutella and Rami Malek. Even for these amazing North African actors, their characters are either non-MENA, white-passing or stereotypical and Orientalist roles.”
Astha Rajvanshi – No Longer ‘Apu,’ Not Yet Beyond ‘Mindy’
Astha Rajvanshi also wrote a brilliant piece on the representation of South Asians in Hollywood, such as Kumail Nanjiani (Pakistan), Mindy Kaling (Indian descent), and others, and the ways in which Hollywood can reimagine how they’re portrayed on screen:
“This absence of diverse actors and experiences on American screens doesn’t just reflect the underrepresentation of people who make up 6 percent of the American population, it has a profound effect on the collective psyche of South Asians.
‘That is what ethnic erasure accomplishes; it imagines worlds without the very existence of South Asian people,’ writes Canadian writer Fiona Khan. Representing whiteness as the norm and framing white stories as universal renders everything else as abnormal.”
And lastly, a roundup of some thought-provoking, brutally honest, and downright funny tweets and threads from Asian and Pacific Islander talent speaking to the experience of actors and creatives in Hollywood:
And last but not least, if you want a fascinating film discussion from one of the authors of the USC Annenberg study, check out TCM at 8pm EST/5pm PT:
What a beautiful diaspora the Asian and Pacific Islander community offers us the chance to experience, and what a poorer world it would be if we didn’t have the chance to see and hear their stories on the screen.
To donate to the #StopAsianHate fund or to see a list of AAPI organizations to donate to, go here.