Keith Chow 「Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?」

Posted on April 22, 2016
HERE’S an understatement: It isn’t easy being an Asian-American actor in Hollywood. Despite some progress made on the small screen – thanks, 「Fresh Off the Boat」! – a majority of roles that are offered to Asian-Americans are limited to stereotypes that wouldn’t look out of place in an ’80s John Hughes comedy.

This problem is even worse when roles that originated as Asian characters end up going to white actors. Unfortunately, these casting decisions are not a relic of Hollywood’s past, like Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in 「Breakfast at Tiffany’s」, but continue right up to the present.

Last week Disney and Marvel Studios released the trailer for 「Doctor Strange」, an adaptation of the Marvel comic. After exhausting every “white man finds enlightenment in the Orient” trope in less than two minutes, the trailer presents Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan male mystic in the comics. Though her casting was no secret, there was something unsettling about the sight of Ms. Swinton’s clean-shaven head and “mystical” Asian garments. It recalled jarring memories of David Carradine from 「Kung Fu」, the 1970s television series that, coincidentally, was itself a whitewashed version of a Bruce Lee concept.

A few days later, DreamWorks and Paramount provided a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson as the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in their adaptation of the Japanese anime classic 「Ghost in the Shell」. The image coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian – basically, yellowface for the digital age.

This one-two punch of white actors playing Asian characters showed how invisible Asian-Americans continue to be in Hollywood. (Not to be left out of the whitewashing news, Lionsgate also revealed the first images of Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, another originally Asian character, in its gritty 「Power Rangers」 reboot.)

Why is the erasure of Asians still an acceptable practice in Hollywood? It’s not that people don’t notice: Just last year, Emma Stone played a Chinese-Hawaiian character named Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s critically derided 「Aloha」. While that film incited similar outrage (and tepid box office interest), no national conversation about racist casting policies took place.

Obviously, Asian-Americans are not the only victims of Hollywood’s continuing penchant for whitewashing. Films like 「Pan」 and 「The Lone Ranger」 featured white actors playing Native Americans, while 「Gods of Egypt」 and 「Exodus: Gods and Kings」 continue the long tradition of Caucasians playing Egyptians.

In all these cases, the filmmakers fall back on the same tired arguments. Often, they insist that movies with minorities in lead roles are gambles. When doing press for 「Exodus」, the director Ridley Scott said: “I can’t mount a film of this budget” and announce that “my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

When the screenwriter Max Landis took to YouTube to explain the 「Ghost in the Shell」 casting, he used a similar argument. “There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now on an international level,” he said, admonishing viewers for “not understanding how the industry works.”

Mr. Landis’s argument closely tracks a statement by the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. In a leaked email exchange with studio heads, he complained about the difficulty of adapting『Flash Boys』, Michael Lewis’s book about the Wall Street executive Bradley Katsuyama, because “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”

Hollywood seems untroubled by these arguments. It’s not about race, they say; the only color they see is green: The reason Asian-American actors are not cast to front these films is because not any of them have a box office track record.

But they’re wrong. If minorities are box office risks, what accounts for the success of the 「Fast and Furious」 franchise, which presented a broadly diverse team, behind and in front of the camera? Over seven movies it has grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide. In fact, a recent study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that films with diverse leads not only resulted in higher box office numbers but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.

And Hollywood’s argument is circular: If Asian-Americans – and other minority actors more broadly – are not even allowed to be in a movie, how can they build the necessary box office clout in the first place? To make matters worse, instead of trying to use their lofty positions in the industry to push for change, Hollywood players like Mr. Landis and Mr. Sorkin take the easy, cynical path.

Even a modest hit like the 「Harold and Kumar」 trilogy, starring John Cho and Kal Penn, was able to quadruple its production budget after box office and home media sales. Meanwhile, films with white stars fail at the box office all the time. Chris Hemsworth, who stars in this weekend’s 「Huntsman」 sequel, has had many more box office flops than successes, yet he is considered a bankable movie star.

Such facts reveal Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies. Films in which the leads have been whitewashed have all failed mightily at the box office. Inserting white leads had no demonstrable effect on the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood?

For years, audiences have essentially boycotted these films, yet studios keep making them. Let’s hope Hollywood eventually listens.

Keith Chow is the founder of the pop culture website The Nerds of Color and an editor of the Asian-American comics anthologies『Secret Identities』and『Shattered』.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 23, 2016, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Asian Actors.



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