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The Importance of Asian Representation in Hollywood

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The Importance of Asian Representation in Hollywood

Lydia Zhou, Staff Writer

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With the release of successful blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the creators talk about the importance of Asian representation in Hollywood and the pressure that comes with it. Months before Crazy Rich Asians premiered, the film was already celebrated for being a rare Hollywood studio film in which the main actors are from Asian descent. Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best selling book, the glitzy romantic comedy stars are Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Director Jon M. Chu has said his goal is for Crazy Rich Asians to not just be a landmark film, but to start a movement for greater Asian representation in Hollywood.

The History of Asian American Hollywood

Hollywood movies have had a rocky history when it comes it the portrayal of Asian Americans. From the early “yellow-face” roles to the now, still recent whitewashing. But there has also been much to admire, including setbacks and milestones. In 1918, the first-ever Asian American Actor was brought to light during the silent film era. Sessue Hayakawa gained enough fortune to create his own studio, Haworth Pictures Corp., because he was frustrated over the lack of Hollywood’s offensive and inaccurate depictions of Asian Americans. He produced over 20 films, becoming one of the highest paid actors of all time. In 1957, he received an Oscar for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Anna May Wong was a silent film star in the 1920s who she also found herself limited to only stereotypical Asian American roles. When Pearl Buck’s novel adaptation of The Good Earth was released, she made public her desire to be in this film as this was a rare opportunity for her to play a Chinese character. Unfortunately, she lost the role to a white actress, named Luise Rainer. Luise Rainer later won an Oscar for that role. This decade also brought us the yellow-face characters Fu, Manchu, and Charlie Chan, which were stereotypical roles played by white actors and were products of western imagination. In 1961, Flower Drum Song became the first Hollywood movie musical featuring Asian American leads. In recent years, the musical is greatly appreciated and embraced, in part because 57 years later, we have still never seen Asian Americans singing and dancing on this grand stage of Hollywood.

After starring as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet,” Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong American actor struggled to find leading roles in Hollywood. He eventually left for Hong Kong, where he filmed three hit movies, before getting the attention of Warner Bros., which offered him the lead in Enter the Dragon. Sadly, Lee died six days before the film was released, just as his career in the United States was about to take off and flourish. With that said, not only has Lee become a global legend, but he set the stage for martial arts stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. By 1993, Director Wayne Wang had gained some recognition with 1982’s Chan Is Missing, which is considered the first independent film directed by an Asian American to resonate outside of the Asian American community. But The Joy Luck Club, based on the book by Amy Tan, was his first mainstream Hollywood film and became a commercial and critical success.

Director Ang Lee’s comedy The Wedding Banquet became the most profitable film, earning $23.6 million from a budget of $1 million. He would later make history as the first non-white filmmaker to win an Oscar for best director, for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, and he’d nab a second one for 2012’s Life of Pi. His 2000 martial arts film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is still the highest grossing foreign-language film in America. The Chinese legend of Hua Mulan is about an aging warrior’s daughter who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in battle. For its adaptation, Disney hired a Chinese American writer, Rita Hsia and hired mostly Asian Americans for the voices, including Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, James Hong, Pat Morita, and George Takei. Disney would later score more hits with Asian American and Pacific Islander stories, such as Lilo and Stitch, Big Hero 6, and Moana. A live-action adaptation of Mulan is in the works for 2020. In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan directed a phenomenal movie called The Sixth Sense. The line “I see dead people,” is one of the most famous movie lines ever in our generation. In 2017, Asian American activists have been speaking out against Hollywood whitewashing for years, Short Circuit 2, 21Aloha Dragonball: Evolution, Dr. Strange,  the list goes on. But in 2018, the controversy around Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the film adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell seemed like the first time Hollywood listened. Paramount executive Kyle Davies admitted that the whitewashing criticism was bad for business.

Asian representation in Hollywood has evolved much more over these past few years, both for good and bad, especially since the recent blockbusters have led audiences to become more open to it. The importance of representation in Hollywood should be talked about and praised for all ethnicities and races and, with the uprise of Asian Americans, doors will definitely be open to new opportunities in the future.

 

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The Importance of Asian Representation in Hollywood