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Hollywood’s Asian Whitewashing: Why It Happens So Often, And Why It Must Be Stopped

Hollywood's Asian Whitewashing: Why It Happens So Often, And Why It Must Be Stopped

Editor’s note: Hollywood whitewashing is not a new problem, but it’s seen a spike with recent reports that Tilda Swinton would play an Asian character in Marvel’s upcoming “Doctor Strange” (the studio now claims she’s supposed to be Celtic); and with the first photos of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead character in the live-action adaptation of the manga series “The Ghost in the Shell.”

For more perspective on the cultural and industrial factors fueling this issue, we set up an email exchange between three Asian-American members of the entertainment community: Mynette Louie, president of Gamechanger Films (“The Invitation,” “Lovesong,” “Land Ho!”),  Andrew Ahn, who made his directorial debut with “Spa Night” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; and Jeff Yang, a featured CNN contributor and author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action,” editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered,” and father of Hudson Yang, from ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

MYNETTE LOUIE: The mainstream finally seems to be noticing a problem that many of us Asian Americans have already been rolling our eyes at for decades: whitewashing in movies. That is: The practice of casting white actors in roles originally conceived as Asian (or another non-white race). Hollywood continues to defend whitewashing with the argument that no Asian actors are “bankable” and yet, no-name white actors get cast in star-making roles all the time (see: Chris Pine, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Gal Gadot, etc.). 

If studios, financiers, and producers aren’t willing to commit to making a star out of an Asian actor in the same way they’ve done with the aforementioned white actors, what hope is there to ever have an Asian actor who is “bankable”? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it really feels like the system is rigged against Asian actors. So much so, that many Asian American actors who were born and raised in the U.S. go to Asia to try to make a name for themselves there: Daniel Wu, Daniel Henney, Leehom Wang, to name a few. Some of them started out not even speaking their ancestral language, and have had to learn it to play leading roles in China, Hong Kong, Korea, etc. Thankfully, some of these actors are coming back home after becoming stars overseas. But isn’t it sad that they couldn’t do that in their home country?

There is also a long tradition of American indie films breaking out unknown actors, who then go on to become stars in studio films. Some examples are Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Hillary Swank, Jennifer Lawrence, and Brie Larson. As you may have noticed, all these examples are white. I mean, look at the great performances in Justin Lin’s breakout feature, “Better Luck Tomorrow.” Whatever happened to everyone in that movie aside from John Cho (who broke out not in this film, but studio comedies “American Pie” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), plus Justin casting Sung Kang and Roger Fan in a few of his studio features? Jason Tobin rocked BLT, but Hollywood neither noticed nor cared. 

That was 2002. This year, Joe Seo, who was the lead in Andrew’s film “Spa Night,” won a Breakthrough Performance Award at Sundance. Will Joe’s talent be ignored by Hollywood, 14 years after BLT? And Andrew, how were you able to get your film financed in the first place with a cast that’s all Asian? The all-Asian-cast Sundance 2009 film I produced, “Children of Invention” by Tze Chun, cost a buck fifty and was financed by friends and philanthropists (and by the way, actors Cindy Cheung, Michael Chen, and Crystal Chiu were great in it!). I’ve had another project with an Asian lead on my development slate for longer than I care to divulge, so I know firsthand how hard it is to get films with Asian leads financed. And yes, I’ve had quite a few of those “Can you make him white?” conversations. It often seems like the indie film world is even more resistant to people of color than the studio world is.

But there does seem to be a glimmer of hope in TV, which I feel is now doing a much better job of breaking non-white actors than indie film is — Steven Yeun, Priyanka Chopra, Constance Wu, Randall Park, and (Jeff’s son) Hudson Yang, for example. But will studios, financiers, and producers help them make the jump to movies?

ANDREW AHN: Mynette, I’m so glad you bring up independent film, because I feel that much of the coverage on this issue has neglected to mention it, even as it suffers from the same systemic problem of whitewashing and a lack of representation. However, we have more control over the situation — we don’t have to be big studio executives to make a difference.  

As I was trying to make “Spa Night” happen, I realized very early on that even independent film financing is very cast dependent; potential financiers want to see big actors in their movies as much as studio heads do. I remember meeting with a potential executive producer early on in the process and he wanted me to write a role for a white actor in “Spa Night,” someone who could bring name value. If it made sense for the story, I would have tried it, but it didn’t. “Spa Night” is the story of a Korean-American immigrant family in Los Angeles and how each member of the family struggles to balance personal desire with a sense of family responsibility. 

I was fortunate enough to have gone through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which gave the project a stamp of approval that helped in the financing process. The financing was done in many small pieces, which was stressful and exhausting. We ultimately cobbled the funding together through crowdfunding on Kickstarter, a number of passionate first-time film investors, and grants from organizations like Sundance, Film Independent, Panavision, Cinereach, and EFILM. It didn’t matter to these people that we didn’t have a big star. What mattered was that we were making a film that tackled the LGBTQ experience in an Asian-American context. I think our Kickstarter backers and our investors are the same people who have been rolling their eyes at this issue of whitewashing for a while, and they decided to do something about it by supporting “Spa Night.”

Casting “Spa Night” was a challenge as well. But long story short, I can testify that the talent exists. Our leads — Joe Seo, Haerry Kim, and Younho Cho — are passionate, committed, and insanely talented actors and I’m so glad I could give them the opportunity to show this to the world through “Spa Night.” If we want to see more Asian-American actors in big Hollywood movies, we need to make and support independent Asian-American films that feature undiscovered talent. Go to an Asian-American film festival. Become members of organizations like Visual Communications, CAAM, Pacific Arts Movement, and Cinevision. Watch Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous” on Netflix. Come to theaters to see “Spa Night” in the fall!

We should definitely talk about television. I agree with you, Mynette, that it’s done a much better job of showcasing a plurality of talent. From “Fresh Off the Boat” to “The Walking Dead,” television has made the leap faster and higher than film. I wonder if that’s because television is serialized; it stays with you. The faces show up every week. With film, you watch it once and leave it at that. It’s hard to build momentum — a momentum we so badly need.

JEFF YANG: When the most recent episodes of Hollywood bleaching of roles of color emerged, in “The Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” — and it’s important to remember that these are just the latest episode in a long historical line of character whitewashing and yellowface portrayals in Hollywood — what appalled me wasn’t simply the fact that in 2016, the studios still think this is okay, but that major players in the independent film world defend such practices. 

Last month, Max Landis, the screenwriter behind “Chronicle” and “American Ultra,” sprinted to YouTube to state that the reason Scarlett Johansson was cast in GITS, a big-budget live-action adaptation of a groundbreaking Japanese animated feature, was that there are “no A-list female Asian celebrities.” In February, the Coen brothers simultaneously stated that diversity is important — and that they had no intention of changing the way they cast their films, which is to say, almost uniformly with white actors. 

“You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?” said Joel Coen, calling the question he’d been asked on whether he’d commit to diverse casting “idiotic.” His brother Ethan concurred: “It’s important to tell the story you’re telling in the right way, which might involve black people or people of whatever heritage or ethnicity — or it might not.”

The problem is that, for the Coens, and for most big-budget studio producers and all too many indie filmmakers, “it might not” means “it rarely, if ever does.” 

The question isn’t how the story in your head looks; it’s how the story on screen looks. Hey, white male indie director: Might the white male characters in your head possibly be portrayable by black, Hispanic, Asian or female actors without you losing your beloved auteurist narrative control? Does the fact that you can only imagine your stories with white protagonists say more about the lack of “A-list actors” of color, or about your personal predilections, cultural myopia, and lack of storytelling range?

That’s a bigger issue to me, in a lot of ways, than whitewashing. I call it “prewashing”: When directors can’t even imagine Asian characters or, God forbid, protagonists. Yes, it sucks that the handful of substantial Asian roles are often yanked out of reach to Asian actors. But it sucks even more that those roles are so far and few between, because screenwriters aren’t writing them and filmmakers aren’t envisioning them. Remember that the issue for Asian Americans in the #OscarsSoWhite controversy wasn’t that we weren’t being nominated — it was that there literally were no Oscar-worthy Asian-American performances, because no one had written, directed, produced or cast roles to legitimately give Asian performers the chance to compete at that star-making level. 

Here’s the inconvenient truth: If eight white men — Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen — were to commit to diverse casting, the Oscar conversation would be totally different. Hell, Hollywood would be totally different. Each of these guys can literally choose to cast anyone they want, with little opposition from money guys or studios. Anderson cast unknown Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The Coens cast (also Guatemalan-American) Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Those movies weren’t destroyed by the presence of then-obscure nonwhite performers. Can you imagine if these Eight Greats were to make films with Asian protagonists? 

We’ve come to a point in our history as a nation where, even in mainstream politics, it’s acknowledged that there’s a meaningful need for candidates and nominees to reflect the massive shifts in American demographics. As you guys have both noted, TV has finally begun to embrace this reality as well, and profited from it — UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and other institutions have shown with multiple studies that diverse television and movies do better and earn more than ones cast with all or mostly white casts. 

For Asian Americans, the revolution is being televised, with “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “Master of None.” But we have yet to see that spread to the big screen. And frankly, I wonder what it’ll take for the film industry to realize that they are being left behind — creatively and politically now, but commercially in the future, as cinema continues to globalize and audiences in the U.S. and beyond look less and less like the “typical” big indie movie cast.

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