With the casting controversy surrounding the about-to-be-released live-action version of The Last Airbender coming to a head (see both sides of the issue here and here), I’ve been hearing the familiar refrain of how we need more Asian Americans in positions of power in Hollywood so this sort of thing won’t happen. There is obviously a logic to this: more Asians=better Asian representation. But like many things in Hollywood, logic doesn’t always apply. So let me offer a different perspective that goes something like this: More Asians will not necessarily mean better representation. In fact, it could add to the problem.
You heard me right. And the reason I say this? Because we already have a fairly decent number of Asian Americans in those power positions and they aren’t helping us any. So what makes us think more of the same will improve our lot? Permit me to explain further:
I’m fully aware that there’s still a glass ceiling and we don’t have the people at the very top where it truly counts—the folks who can greenlight the projects and wield the real power. But as many Asian Americans in the biz are proud to point out, if you look at the ranks of the behind-the-scenes, decision-making positions–executives, producers, agents and so forth—you’ll find that there are probably more Asian Americans represented there than many other minorities. But the problem is that a lot of the people in those positions aren’t helping the cause and, in some cases, are making things worse.
Now, I’m not talking about those folks, usually working in the low-budget indie scene, who have supported Asian American cinema time and time again when there clearly is no market for it and it’s a thankless, money-losing and all-around impossible endeavor (see previous posts on this topic here and here). I’m talking about the Cherry Skys and the Mynette Louies and all the other good folk (and hopefully you can add YOMYOMF Films to that list in the near future) who actively create opportunities for Asian Americans when frankly they’d probably have much easier and financially rewarding careers if they didn’t.
And yes, there are also exceptions in the Hollywood system—those who say they give a damn about Asian American representation and actually back up their words with actions. I’ll always appreciate the support of people like Katy Lim, who is no longer in the business now but at the time was an exec at the Donners’ Company, who went out of her way to read my work, giving great feedback and championing my writing with her colleagues when everyone else saw me as the nobody that I was at the time.
Nor am I talking about the Asian Americans in those positions who are honest and upfront about the fact that they are there to do a job and who make it clear that their agenda isn’t to advance any sort of Asian American cause. I know there are many in the community who have issues with that way of thinking, but technically they’re right in that it isn’t their job to advocate for Asian America; their job is to make money for their bosses/companies so I personally don’t have an issue with these folks. They’re being honest about what they do and I respect that.
But here are the two types of industry people I do have a problem with: those who talk on and on about supporting Asian America, but don’t do shit to actually show any real support. And even worse—those who actively and intentionally make an effort to hurt the cause. Sadly, from my experience and those of other colleagues, these two types are not uncommon (and sometimes are one and the same).
If you’ve been in the biz long enough, you’re probably well acquainted with the first type. You see them out and about in the community—attending various functions, speaking on panels about topics like Asian American pride and empowerment, getting awards from community organizations that don’t know better. They talk a good game and say all the right things, but they don’t back their rhetoric with any real action. When it comes down to it, they’re too afraid to make waves or stick their necks out to make a difference. Even if their hearts are in the right place, they’re never going to amount to more than just a bunch of nice-sounding rhetoric.
But the second type is more problematic. In the interest of space, let me explain this type by sharing an incident that happened to my fellow Offender Justin. When he finished Better Luck Tomorrow, he held the very first screening of the film at the Fotokem lab in Burbank. It was in a small screening room and mostly for friends and family, but there were also a few industry types in attendance. Now, you have to remember this was back before the film got accepted into Sundance, before it got picked up by MTV, before it got distributed by Paramount. It was just another indie picture made by an unknown wannabe filmmaker who had maxed out a bunch of credit cards.
So after the screening, everyone’s coming up to Justin to congratulate him on the work. One of the people who approaches him is an Asian American agent at one of the top talent agencies. Usually in these instances, if you didn’t like the film, it’s standard to say something like “good work” or give some other politely vague compliment. But what this agent does is rip into Justin for having wasted his time, effort and money by making this film. The agent goes on about how Justin should’ve made the film with a white cast instead of Asians and basically berates him for being an idiot and tells him the film has no future. I still don’t understand what the point of the tirade was and I question if the agent would have gone off in the same way to a non-Asian filmmaker. Unfortunately, stories like this are not isolated.
I’ve often wondered about this and have had long discussions with my colleagues about why it oftentimes seems like we’re our own worst enemies. And I think it might have to do with our baggage as Asian Americans. We’re taught to assimilate, to not make waves, to be followers. Maybe once we’re allowed into that exclusive club, we want to fit in so badly that we don’t want to give the impression that we’re favoring “our own,” sometimes to the point of going in the opposite direction and making an effort to reject our community. Maybe it’s insecurity or self-hatred or just plain fear. But when a film like Better Luck Tomorrow pops up and our own community can’t support it until MTV and Paramount validate it and it gets the white man’s seal of approval first, then there’s something wrong. We should be at the forefront of championing works like that, not following behind the curve after the train has already passed us by. As producer Dan Lin said at our INTERPRETATIONS panel last month, we really have to fight against our own Asian upbringing.
I know many of my Asian American colleagues are frustrated and don’t think there’s a place in Hollywood for stories featuring faces that look like ours. But I think that’s bullshit. The fact that white filmmakers are able to make movies like the Harold and Kumar series or Ninja Assassin or Letters From Iwo Jima (which I should point out was written by my fellow Offender Iris) shows it can be done. When I interviewed the Harold and Kumar writers at the time of the first film’s release, I asked them if they faced any resistance in getting the project made with two Asian American leads. They admitted they were fully expecting to face opposition as novice screenwriters with no real clout, but for the most part, the race of the leads was never a real issue. Which goes to show that if you have the right project with the right elements (and believe me that’s much harder than it sounds), Hollywood doesn’t have to be the enemy. But it’s true there is still a lot of work to be done.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter but I am a little disheartened that I haven’t met more Asian Americans in the biz like Stephanie Allain who, as an African American studio exec in the late 80s/early 90s, went out of her way to advocate for first-time minority filmmakers like John Singleton, a fresh out of USC film student with zero features under his belt, who got to direct Boyz N The Hood at Columbia because Allain saw a young, talented African American who simply needed someone to give him a shot. And it wasn’t just charity on her part, her efforts helped make her own career too as she explains in her own words:
I was fortunate to find John and Robert Rodriguez and Darnell Martin and my tenure at Columbia was really marked by my own niche which was urban indie movies that had the blessing and the money and the studio behind it; so those filmmakers were able to elevate their game and graduate to the big times pretty effortlessly after their first movies because the studio — Columbia was just so supportive and their work was so good that they got out into the world and I’ve benefited from that frankly.
As The Last Airbender controversy illustrates (a protest led by Asian Americans against a film directed by an Asian American over the issue of Asian representation), the model is no longer one of us (Asian) against them (white people). Things have changed and we need to acknowledge this new world in order to successfully navigate through it. So let me start by throwing in my two cents and say that I don’t care about having more Asian Americans in Hollywood power positions. Not if it’s going to be the same song and dance. What I care about and want are people who are going to be true allies, who are willing to take risks and stick their necks out on behalf of Asian Americans, regardless of what the color of their skin is. Or at the very least, stay out of the way of those of us who do genuinely care about the future of Asian American film and are trying to do something about it. We’ve already got a long, hard road ahead of us. The last thing we need is another obstacle.