On Monday, Los Angeles hosted the first screening of Crazy Rich Asians. As an American-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, I was intrigued by the first major Hollywood film featuring a completely Asian cast. In an era where Asians easily fall into the problematic model minority myth, the Asian-American struggle is often overlooked.
Hollywood currently shows the reality of bias and racism against Asians in our modern day society. The #oscarssowhite movement has shined a light on the fact that Asian representation in mainstream pop culture is almost non-existent. For most Asian Americans, our representation in Hollywood has focused on white saviors leading storylines, or white actresses completely replacing Asian characters. From a social justice perspective, Hollywood has deliberately sent the message that Asian voices, faces, and stories don’t matter, and are easily replaced by whiteness. Often, if Asians are included in narratives, they portray tokenized characters or are based on racial stereotypes. In the example of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, Disney initially decided to recreate the movie using a white-male lead, but after pushback from the public decided to feature an all-Asian cast. Even the original animated film only included two Asian actors when every character in the movie was Chinese. Hollywood has never prioritized Asian representation.
Personally, I have experienced a whole range of discrimination, from subtle microaggressions (the time I witnessed a man bow to my father and say “Konichiwa” and then immediately told him to leave the gambling table at a casino in Vegas), to egregious racists remarks (the time a friend’s boyfriend asked why all Asian people had flat faces, or when a high school teacher asked why all Chinese people sounded angry when they spoke, or a white classmate that told me all Asians are smart without understanding our country’s immigration policy implications. This list could go on and on.) You would think that I grew up in a small town in a flyover state with no diversity. On the contrary, I grew up in a middle class suburb outside of Los Angeles.
As an adult, I became a teacher and taught at an elite private school in Pacific Palisades. My short brushes with Hollywood included teaching children of major Hollywood filmmakers and actors. I attended numerous school functions with their families. Our staff lacked in diversity, and I was one of a handful of people of color on staff. At one fundraiser, a major Hollywood director was asked to host the auction. During his auctioneering, he continuously cracked funny jokes, but the most memorable was when he asked the audience where I was seated because he needed me to help solve a math problem quickly. I was teaching 1st grade at the time, and he had no other basis of my math abilities other than my teaching his son basic addition skills, and my race. Even though this moment was lighthearted and playful in most people’s eyes, this moment showed how quickly people dismiss bias against Asians. Even though there were numerous audience members at the butt of his jokes, I was the only person who’s joke was based on race. If this director openly showed his bias, there are many more Hollywood directors hiding theirs. Hollywood has magnified the common Asian-American struggle by participating in racial bias in the form of removing Asian visibility and voice or completely dismissing the idea of bias.
Before attending the screening, I knew nothing of the premise of the movie, and had only heard of the novel a few years back. I posted a photo of the Ace Theatre with the movie title. I was surprised by the fact that a very diverse group of people wanted to know how the movie was, and that they were excited to see it. At that moment, I realized I participated in the problem of racial bias in Hollywood. If Asian voices, faces, and stories are worth seeing, why did I have the feeling of surprise when my non-Asian friends expressed interest? American pop culture has allowed subtle racism against Asians to become the norm, and at that moment, I fell victim to implicit bias.
From Jeremy Lin being called the c-word on national television, to casting most Asian actors as tokens, having white actors replace Asian roles (Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell) , and having white saviors carry storylines (Matt Damon in Great Wall), there are more examples of the devaluation of Asian actors, stories, and voices than there are exceptions. I attended the screening with little to no expectations while feeling anxious that this movie could be a make-it or break-it iconic movie for diversity and inclusion of Asian Americans in popular culture.
At the advanced screening, the producers, director and actors introduced the film to audiences by thanking them for the support, while talking about their experience making the film. Awkwafina celebrated the fact that most of her previous roles tokenized her, and that she was proud to be part of a film that featured an all-Asian cast. In this film, she plays the role of the protagonist’s friend and helps navigate her through the ups and downs of meeting her boyfriend’s family.
The most powerful moment was when Jon M. Chu, director, asked for the audience to rally up support when the film is released in the summer. He stated, “I guarantee it will green-light 4 other films with Asian leads.” The public is ready for Hollywood to prioritize inclusivity. He encouraged the audience to bring as many people as possible to view the film in hopes of sending a strong message.
Crazy Rich Asians features an all-Asian cast, including Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat), Ken Jeong (The Hangover), and Harry Shum, Jr. (Glee), and delivers an engaging, sentimental, and fun story for all audiences. Because this film is the first of its kind in regards to casting, you would think that it would only appeal to Asian audiences. This movie stands up to, and in my option, and exceeds mainstream comedies featuring SNL alumni. The comedic brilliance of both Jeong and Awkwafina are the highlight of the film. The engaging storylines, talented acting, and witty comedy contribute to a perfectly executed performance. This movie can hold its own when compared to classics such as The Hangover and Bridesmaids.
In the recent years, shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None have proven that the thirst and need for diversity in Hollywood exists. Crazy Rich Asians is arguably the defining moment for Asian representation in the film industry. If well received, the industry will be able to pinpoint this movie as the turning point for Asian inclusion in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians proves that American culture has waited too long for inclusivity, and audiences are hungry for diverse stories. Asian stories are worthy of being told, Asian voices are worthy of being heard, and Asians faces can successfully execute lead roles. This movie proves that there can, and should be, success for Asians in Hollywood. We’re ready for it, so it begs the question, why hasn’t a film like this happened sooner?