Can anyone tell me the last time you remember an Asian actor or actress taking the starring role in a film?
Let me rephrase that. Can anyone tell me the last time you remember seeing an Asian actor or actress in starring role who wasn’t playing a martial arts cop (See: Jackie Chan), or a beautiful, but deadly assassin (See: Lucy Liu).
Chances are that you can’t, because I had a hard time naming one. But I’m left wondering if the public thinks that’s a problem. One of the reasons studios don’t take a chance on Asian actors and actresses is that they are afraid a film will lose its pull on the audience because they won’t feel comfortable with a leading role being headed up by someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li if it isn’t Romeo Must Rumble In the Bronx II.
I’ll admit that when I see a movie that isn’t headlined by someone I think is an A-list actor I automatically don’t feel compelled to really see that movie. Let’s face the facts: big name superstars drive us to the movies as much as the movies themselves. Who wants to see Ming Na as the leading actress when you could have someone who will drive people to the theatres like a Nicole Kidman or a Jessica Alba?
Here’s another interesting question: do you know who Ming Na is?
She was actually the starring actress in the Joy Luck Club, an asian centered drama based on the best-selling book by Amy Tan. She was also a recurring character on ER and is in a new series on NBC called Inconceivable where she plays the lead character.
Two points for you if you knew all of that.
Which interestingly means that I only get one point, because I didn’t know all of that either. And so I sit here wondering, “Why not?” Have I been sucked into this Hollywood vacuum where I see shades of white and black, but often times nothing in between or a little off the spectrum?
Another problem with these scenarios is that parts aren’t being written with asian actors and actresses in mind. Ming Na is a very competent actress, but you can’t plug her into the role of Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain. After all, Kidman was playing a Southern Belle in the middle of the Civil War. For some reason I think the writers would have a difficult time writing Ming Na into that one.
Are parts being written for asian actors and actresses? Maybe the bigger question is whether the public WANTS to see movies with asian stars in it that don’t involve huge sword battles or warriors flying through the air. What about a romantic comedy or a drama starring a leading asian man or woman? Would it work?
One problem I think I have sometimes is that the relationship dynamics of an asian actor with another actor who isn’t asian. Would a romance between Russell Wong and Jessica Alba in a movie be believable? Why can’t Russell Wong be Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four (aside from the fact that Mr. Fantastic is a white character…but that never stopped comic book movies before. I could have sworn the King Pin was white also, but Michael Clark Duncan changed that)?
I just don’t think the audience would buy it, and the main reason being is that they aren’t used to seeing it. And it doesn’t help when Hollywood does put two of them together and it just doesn’t work. Lucy Lu and Antonio Banderas? Seriously?
This phenomenon, if you can call it that, isn’t limited to the Asian-American population. Black actors and actresses suffered from the same sort of problem in the last century. Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for best Male actor in 1963 for his role in Lillies of the Field, yet it would probably be another 20-30 years before we saw black actors and actresses getting mainstream attention for their roles in major Hollywood productions. And we’re still waiting on getting more black producers, directors and other roles in Hollywood.
It’s definitely slow going, but I think there was a push from the public that, yes, we accept black actors and actresses as leading characters and we want to see them. Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Wesley Snipes are all leading role getters that we accept and go watch. How long until we see the same treatment for Asian-Americans?
In the end, I don’t think it’s just film and television where this lack of attention for Asian-Americans can be found. It’s also easy to find in mainstream sports as well. All of the well known Asian athletes all have some sort of gimmick that lets you remember them. Yao Ming, center for the Houston Rockets, is a 7’5’’ giant. The fact that he’s 7’5’’ is an easy reminder of who he is, but the fact that he’s about two feet taller than your average asian person makes it even easier. Michelle Wie, a 15 year old golfer from Hawaii, gets a ton of attention because of her age and her propensity for ignoring the LPGA and continuing to try to make the cut on the men’s tour.
But what about all of the unknown athletes who are also very good but get no recognition because they don’t have a gimmick? Dat Nguyen, middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, is known for his hard work and hustle on the field. I don’t remember too many deodorant commercials coming Dat’s way. What about Ichiro Suziki, arguably one of the best hitters in baseball today and one of the most talented and gifted fielders, yet he won’t get a headline on a newspaper unless the man hit .500 for the season or finished a game hitting for TWO cycles. Yes, it would take that much. Hell, even Sammy Sosa would get a headline if he hit .300 for a season. Maybe Ichiro should try hopping up and down when he hits a single.
I know things will change eventually, because there’s too much talent in the Asian community to be lost in our mainstream media forever. There’s also too much talent in the Hispanic community and Black community to not allow them to progress either. This, like all other things culturally related in our country, will just take time or maybe a firm push on our parts to show the media what we really want to see – diversity.