Not Just Asian In August: Contemporary Movies Can Be #AsianAllTheTime
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I have been to see “Crazy Rich Asians” twice thus far. I plan on seeing it again and you can bet that it will be added to my collection. I think it is a fantastic movie with a phenomenal cast delivering brilliant performances in a modern telling of a Cinderella story in which the princess is perfectly capable of saving herself.
I’m well aware that this release along with the premiere of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” on Netflix and “Searching”, in theaters now, – all with Asian or Asian-American leads – is unprecedented in the American film landscape. With that being the case, it didn’t surprise me at all to see #AsianAugust popping up all over my Twitter feed. What did have me taken slightly aback was a question a friend asked over the phone when we were discussing “Crazy Rich Asians”:
Did you like the movie because it was a good movie, or did you like it because you're Asian?
To be clear: Even though I will say I’m half Chamorro and half Mexican 99% of the time, anyone with a basic understanding of human nature’s need to reproduce understands that pureblood ethnicities of any kind could only happen in a vacuum. So, yes. I am part Asian. I also spent several years growing up in South Korea which impacted life in ways I am still continuing to learn as I grow older.
What does being Asian have to do with whether I enjoyed watching the film?
And then I realized this is indicative of the larger problem with diversity in Hollywood I made mention of in a previous blog post which you can CLICK HERE to read - which I myself have read in script notes of screenplays I’ve submitted.
“The commercial potential scored solidly high, and while this script depicts a massive milestone in our nation’s history that could interest some audiences, the overall audience appeal remains a bit limited and this seems more aimed at cable, where a more receptive audience would easily be present.”
It’s a nice way of saying: “It’s good – but not enough people care.”
Many studios are operating under the assumption that only members of the demographic depicted on-screen will go to the theater to watch minority-led movies because others will not find the stories “relatable”. If that were true, the film and television industry would have come toppling down years, if not decades, ago. But with the population of the United States growing more diverse with every census, it would be in the best interest of those studios who still think this is factual to add more color to their otherwise very monochrome slate. According to BoxOfficeMojo, at the time of this post, “Black Panther” still reigns as king of the domestic box office with five other minority-led films in the top twenty-five grossing thus far in 2018. Of course, with films like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” available exclusively through a streaming service, numbers are not easy to come by or compare. If this year has proven anything, it is that there are quite enough people that care.
There is still the issue of whitewashing or token diversity for brownie points. How do we get around this? Well, remember those screenwriters I mentioned in the Annenberg blog? They say screenwriters need to make the culture of the characters important to the overall story.
I agree with this.
And I don’t.
For this point, I will only make a small note of the suggestion to make Rachel in “Crazy Rich Asians” white rather than staying true to the source material for a play on the racial tensions in a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 3.0” and instead focus on “To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before” and “Searching.” Both of these movies have Korean-American protagonist characters, but their ethnic heritage has little to do with the plot of the movie. It very well have been depicted by an actor of any other racial background. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they didn’t. Can you imagine the book-fan outrage that would have ensued? But even their IMBD loglines read without any attention being paid to the color of the main character’s skin.
“A teenage girl's secret love letters are exposed and wreak havoc on her love life.”
“After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.”
Really. That’s it. The ethnicity of the characters of the story does not influence whether the stories are entertaining or relatable. They are – at their core – simply good, contemporary stories. They just happen to be told with an Asian star.
But wait? Didn’t you say you agree with those other screenwriters?
Yes. Yes, I did. I agree that culture should be made to be important to the overall story so long as it is necessary for the overall story. For example, if a movie is depicting a particular period in a particular place seeking historical accuracy over creative license ala “Mary, Queen of Scots” then, yes, the culture of the character or characters is paramount. However, this further proves the point that we cannot paint the viewing audience with such a broad stroke since the film industry itself cannot be painted as such.
With all that having been said, do you have to like any of the #AsianAugust movies because you might be Asian? No. Do you have to shy away from watching them if you’re not Asian? I hope you don’t. My hope is that the success of these films and others will make it so #AsianAugust becomes #AsianAllTheTime and does the same for other minority groups seeking representation on screen. That this is not a moment but a movement.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a movie to watch. Again.