Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors.
We have a problem of Asian hate.
And it is not just the viral images that have filled smartphone and laptop screens with the latest hateful, anti-Asian incident in America.
Asian hate is on the big screen too. Hollywood has played a big role in this, from portraying Asian women as timid, submissive and over-sexualized side plots to emasculating Asian men as effete, ridiculous, comic relief sidekicks or inscrutable, sinister villains.
These stereotypes have long contributed to making Asians — to making us — a target. For those who might say, “It’s just a movie,” we say, stereotypes affect how people are treated.
Whether of African Americans, Asian Americans or other minority communities, stereotypes have far too often been reinforced by Hollywood. We need only to go to the original sin of the first blockbuster Hollywood hit — D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Some still consider this 1915 silent film to be the greatest early Hollywood movie, but it remains a disgusting, fawning portrayal of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
There is still a long way to go, but Hollywood, fortunately, has made some great progress from the days when a film would legitimize and heroicize Jim Crow. Filmmakers like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay and the star power of actors like Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Lawrence Fishburne, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry and Angela Davis, to name just a few of many, continue to enrich and diversify the images and stories we see on our screens today.
As Americans, we need our heroes and our role models. They impact how we feel about ourselves and they impact how we treat people.
With regard to Asian American portrayals, we are still in many ways largely stuck in the 1920s — in the unabashed in-your-face racism of early Hollywood. And no, “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Minari” does not fix it.
With all of this baggage and the urgency of the violence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the chance to make right what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes show failed at when it kicked off this year’s awards season on Feb. 28.
In the 2021 Oscars ceremony, the Academy can make a statement, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association did not, that stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is not acceptable.
The movie industry also needs to deal with its “bamboo ceilings” both behind and in front of the camera. Just look at the list of the top paid people in entertainment according to Forbes. There is only one AAPI actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (whose mother is of Samoan heritage and whose father is of Black Nova Scotian heritage). No Asian American women. No East Asian American men.
The “bamboo ceiling” and Asian stereotypes are baked into Hollywood’s DNA.
In the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to cast Los Angeles-born actress Anna May Wong for the leading role of the Chinese woman named O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.” One producer said she was “too Chinese to play Chinese.” Luise Rainer, the white actress who played the leading role in yellowface, went on to win the 1938 Oscar for Best Actress. Other Asian American actors and actresses were also denied career-making roles.
Similarly, deeply racist stereotypes abound even in Hollywood’s most iconic films. These range from Mickey Rooney’s egregious depiction of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese photographer in the classic 1961 film and Oscars winner “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for which he donned fake buck teeth and taped his eyelids, to the demeaning dialogue — “Me so horny. Me love you long time. You party?…me suckee suckee….10 dollah” — of an Asian woman in Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar-nominated 1987 Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket,” to the weird, emasculated yet overly horny caricature of a person, Long Duk Dong, in the American teen classic “Sixteen Candles.”
But it is hardly surprising since the problem starts at the top. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found just 3.3% of directors of the 1,300 most popular films released between 2007 and 2019 were of Asian descent.
Under the weight of all of this history, and in the context of the current acts of anti-Asian American hate, the Golden Globes missed a chance to make an important statement.
This year’s Oscars ceremony will reportedly be centered around the theme “Stories Matter” and be broadcast from a range of locations due to the pandemic. Announced Oscars 2021 presenters include previous winners Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix and Laura Dern.
So what should Hollywood do during the Oscars? The hashtags already exist — #StopAsianHate, #StopAAPIHate, #StandWithAsians. The people behind this 93rd Academy Awards ceremony need to say these words. Frequently. But also, they need to put all of Hollywood’s power behind policy changes, legislative action and fundraisers for organizations already making a difference at the community level.
The Academy and the industry have a big podium and they need to rise to the occasion. But even more important is to ensure this is not a fleeting moment. The time is up for Hollywood to tell the stories of a diverse and complex AAPI community.
We need to #StopAsianHate, and Hollywood needs to move from being part of the problem to part of the solution.
About the Authors: Curtis S. Chin is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Drue Kataoka is an artist-technologist-activist & CEO of Drue Kataoka Art Studios. Follow them on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @DrueKataoka.