Friday, January 6, 2012

Hollywood and Asian America a Century Later

Over the last few years the subject of Racebending has weighed heavier and heavier on my mind. I was well aware that in the early eras of film white actors routinely played Asian lead characters; the racism of the time relegating Asian actors to supporting and extra roles. I knew that, decades later, these norms had remained strong enough for David Carradine to supplant the iconic Bruce Lee in the television series Kung Fu. It wasn't until the recent debacle that was Avatar: The Last Airbender, however, that I truly began to see that Hollywood, more than lazily resisting change, was continually reinforcing these archaic norms onto the movie watching public.

If you don't remember, The Last Airbender movie was a live-action, big screen adaptation of the excellent three-season cartoon of the same name. Though made in the United States, Asian influences were everywhere and it was pretty obvious from everything about the cartoon that the characters were supposed to be Asian as well. The movie, predictably, featured all white leads with the exception of the villains. And the background characters.

So it was pretty serendipitous that, on the day I read that the white-washed live-action adaptation of Akira was tabled - again - for creative and budgetary reasons, I came across this passage in American Chinatown referring to early Asian-American actress Anna May Wong:
Anna May found success in the U.K. and Germany, in films like Picadilly (in which she played a scullery maid who eventually becomes a nightclub star) and onstage in a German operetta (she performed in fluent German, to rave reviews). Returning to Hollywood in 1930, she struggled in the ensuing decades to find better roles, speaking out against negative Chinese stereotyping. "Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain?" she asked in a suprisingly blunt interview with Doris Mackie of Film Weekly in 1933.

For any not familiar with the current plans for Akira, though the character names will not change (Akira, Tetsuo, Kaneda, etc) the film will be set in New Manhattan instead of Neo Tokyo and all of the film's lead roles will be played by white actors - except for the villain. Tell me, how far have we come in the last 80 years?

In the lead-up to The Last Airbender's release I was reading a lot of coverage (and having more than a few conversations) stating that it was impossible to know whether the studio had planned to hire white leads or if the white kids that went out for the part happened to be the best. Looking back at the last 80 years of Hollywood cinema, at what point are critics allowed to take the exclusion of Asian actors from lead roles as a symptom of a great problem? How long, and how many slights, will it take before it becomes obvious that this is a pattern of behavior and movies that engage in this sort of casting CANNOT be examined independently? (Incidentally, the casting call for Akira leaked in March of last year so there are no illusions about the studio's intentions with this one.)

I'm sure folks will point to Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Lucy Liu as Asian actors that have become names on the big screen. But let's take another look at Anny May Wong's life (once again, via American Chinatown to see how far we've really come:

In 1928, the leading role of a Chinese slave in The Crimson City was given to Myrna Loy over Anna May Wong, who had to resign herself to a bit part. The slight was widely seen as the trigger that sent her looking for more sympathetic and realistic Chinese roles in Europe. Anti-miscegenation laws in effect in the United States meant there could be no on-screen kissing between Asian and white actors - even if they were both playing Asian characters.

So let me ask, of all of the screen time logged by the three actors I mentioned above in American-made films how many screen kisses have they gotten? Li and Chan are action stars! And they still, in a genre known for its gratuitous sexuality, can't get any! If it had been Jason Statham in Romeo Must Die you know he would have gotten a kiss from Aaliyah. The most Chan has been given, that I can remember, is the opportunity to hold Claire Forlani's hand at the end of The Medallion and a short peck, viewed from a distance, at the end of Rush Hour 2. While male Asian actors have largely had to deal with by asexualized on screen female Asian actors have had to deal with being hyper-sexualized - as long as they are subservient. They are only allowed to be affectionate when the male lead gets to be dominant. Lucy Liu - at this point type cast as the unmovable ice queen that strong Asian leads have been pigeon-holed as for decades - has one memorable screen kiss to her credit: making out with Calista Flockhart on Ally Macbeal fifteen years ago. Do you think, had Angelina Jolie starred opposite Antonio Banderas in Ecks vs Sever, that the female lead would have been given a child and no physical interaction with the male lead?

I really don't know where I'm going with all this. I just know that, as an Asian-American that likes seeing the occasional movie, it's incredibly frustrating to see Hollywood continually fall back on habits that are decades older than the Civil Rights Movement.

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