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WhyWontHollywoodCastAsianActors?
ByKEITHCHOW

APRIL22,2016

HERESanunderstatement:ItisnteasybeinganAsianAmericanactorinHollywood.
Despitesomeprogressmadeonthesmallscreenthanks,FreshOfftheBoat!a
majorityofrolesthatareofferedtoAsianAmericansarelimitedtostereotypesthat
wouldntlookoutofplaceinan80sJohnHughescomedy.
ThisproblemisevenworsewhenrolesthatoriginatedasAsiancharactersendup
goingtowhiteactors.Unfortunately,thesecastingdecisionsarenotarelicof
Hollywoodspast,likeMickeyRooneysportrayalofI.Y.YunioshiinBreakfastat
Tiffanys,butcontinuerightuptothepresent.
LastweekDisneyandMarvelStudiosreleasedthetrailerforDoctorStrange,an
adaptationoftheMarvelcomic.Afterexhaustingeverywhitemanfindsenlightenment
intheOrienttropeinlessthantwominutes,thetrailerpresentsTildaSwintonasthe
AncientOne,aTibetanmalemysticinthecomics.Thoughhercastingwasnosecret,
therewassomethingunsettlingaboutthesightofMs.Swintonscleanshavenheadand
mysticalAsiangarments.ItrecalledjarringmemoriesofDavidCarradinefromKung
Fu,the1970stelevisionseriesthat,coincidentally,wasitselfawhitewashedversionof
aBruceLeeconcept.
Afewdayslater,DreamWorksandParamountprovidedaglimpseofScarlett
JohanssonasthecyborgMotokoKusanagiintheiradaptationoftheJapaneseanime
classicGhostintheShell.Theimagecoincidedwithreportsthatproducersconsidered
usingdigitaltoolstomakeMs.JohanssonlookmoreAsianbasically,yellowfacefor
thedigitalage.
ThisonetwopunchofwhiteactorsplayingAsiancharactersshowedhowinvisible
AsianAmericanscontinuetobeinHollywood.(Nottobeleftoutofthewhitewashing
news,LionsgatealsorevealedthefirstimagesofElizabethBanksasRitaRepulsa,
anotheroriginallyAsiancharacter,initsgrittyPowerRangersreboot.)
WhyistheerasureofAsiansstillanacceptablepracticeinHollywood?Itsnotthat

peopledontnotice:Justlastyear,EmmaStoneplayedaChineseHawaiiancharacter
namedAllisonNginCameronCrowescriticallyderidedAloha.Whilethatfilmincited
similaroutrage(andtepidboxofficeinterest),nonationalconversationaboutracist
castingpoliciestookplace.
Obviously,AsianAmericansarenottheonlyvictimsofHollywoodscontinuing
penchantforwhitewashing.FilmslikePanandTheLoneRangerfeaturedwhite
actorsplayingNativeAmericans,whileGodsofEgyptandExodus:GodsandKings
continuethelongtraditionofCaucasiansplayingEgyptians.
Inallthesecases,thefilmmakersfallbackonthesametiredarguments.Often,
theyinsistthatmovieswithminoritiesinleadrolesaregambles.Whendoingpressfor
Exodus,thedirectorRidleyScottsaid:Icantmountafilmofthisbudget"and
announcethatmyleadactorisMohammadsoandsofromsuchandsuch.
WhenthescreenwriterMaxLandistooktoYouTubetoexplaintheGhostinthe
Shellcasting,heusedasimilarargument.TherearenoAlistfemaleAsiancelebrities
rightnowonaninternationallevel,hesaid,admonishingviewersfornot
understandinghowtheindustryworks.
Mr.LandissargumentcloselytracksastatementbythescreenwriterAaronSorkin.
Inaleakedemailexchangewithstudioheads,hecomplainedaboutthedifficultyof
adaptingFlashBoys,MichaelLewissbookabouttheWallStreetexecutiveBradley
Katsuyama,becausetherearentanyAsianmoviestars.
Hollywoodseemsuntroubledbythesearguments.Itsnotaboutrace,theysaythe
onlycolortheyseeisgreen:ThereasonAsianAmericanactorsarenotcasttofront
thesefilmsisbecausenotanyofthemhaveaboxofficetrackrecord.
Buttheyrewrong.Ifminoritiesareboxofficerisks,whataccountsforthesuccess
oftheFastandFuriousfranchise,whichpresentedabroadlydiverseteam,behind
andinfrontofthecamera?Oversevenmoviesithasgrossednearly$4billion
worldwide.Infact,arecentstudybytheRalphJ.BuncheCenterforAfricanAmerican
StudiesattheUniversityofCalifornia,LosAngeles,foundthatfilmswithdiverseleads
notonlyresultedinhigherboxofficenumbersbutalsohigherreturnsofinvestmentfor
studiosandproducers.
AndHollywoodsargumentiscircular:IfAsianAmericansandotherminority
actorsmorebroadlyarenotevenallowedtobeinamovie,howcantheybuildthe
necessaryboxofficecloutinthefirstplace?Tomakemattersworse,insteadoftryingto
usetheirloftypositionsintheindustrytopushforchange,HollywoodplayerslikeMr.
LandisandMr.Sorkintaketheeasy,cynicalpath.

EvenamodesthitliketheHaroldandKumartrilogy,starringJohnChoandKal
Penn,wasabletoquadrupleitsproductionbudgetafterboxofficeandhomemedia
sales.Meanwhile,filmswithwhitestarsfailattheboxofficeallthetime.Chris
Hemsworth,whostarsinthisweekendsHuntsmansequel,hashadmanymorebox
officeflopsthansuccesses,yetheisconsideredabankablemoviestar.
SuchfactsrevealHollywoodsdirtylittlesecret.Economicshasnothingtodowith
racistcastingpolicies.Filmsinwhichtheleadshavebeenwhitewashedhaveallfailed
mightilyattheboxoffice.Insertingwhiteleadshadnodemonstrableeffectonthe
numbers.SowhyisthatstillconventionalthinkinginHollywood?
Foryears,audienceshaveessentiallyboycottedthesefilms,yetstudioskeep
makingthem.LetshopeHollywoodeventuallylistens.
KeithChowisthefounderofthepopculturewebsiteTheNerdsofColorandaneditorof
theAsianAmericancomicsanthologiesSecretIdentitiesandShattered.
FollowTheNewYorkTimesOpinionsectiononFacebookandTwitter,andsignupforthe
OpinionTodaynewsletter.
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