Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Asian Americans on Heroes

During our weekly Heroes-watching, we usually feel a mix of emotions -- excitement to see Masi Oka and James Kyson Lee in such complex and hilarious starring roles, confusion as to why they are always bumbling fools with high-pitched voices -- and these last two weeks have been no exception.

We were excited to see Hiro and Ando get picked up by this trucker, who they first assume is Japanese, but who turns out to be a good old Southern boy with a strong twang. It's a bit awkward that he says "don't go all foreign on me," but we're just happy that the writers seem to be toying with their own predilection for having all non-white people be foreigners. He's likable, and the scene is funny.

The next week, however, Angela takes the whole Petrelli family to a deserted camp in the desert to dig up old memories of when people with powers were being taken away and killed (by no less than another accented Asian, the now-villainous Chandra Suresh from the 1960s). It was nice, I suppose, to see the internment being condemned in a sort of half-hearted way (since internment was wrong, this whole imprisoning people with powers thing must be wrong too!) but at the same time, the visual comparisons were strong and the storyline was not. The whole episode was weak in terms of racial politics (would an Indian have immigrated in 1961 to start his own facility, would a black man even be allowed into that diner?) and in general the history of internment was ignored in favor of Angela's need to dig up the family bones (creepy!). Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive, but to show people being carted into a "relocation center" and made to live in barracks in the desert demands more than one line about how this was somewhat related to internment. It was a missed opportunity to actually discuss the internment, and to explicitly connect the visual landscape that had been recreated here to the experiences of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More on Avatar

We sent our letter about the casting of the Avatar film to Paramount in early February, and we received this response on March 25:

March 25, 2009

Mr. Guy Aoki
Media Action Network For Asian Americans
P.O. Box 11105
Burbank, CA 91510

Dear Mr. Aoki,

Thank you for your letter and interest in our film.

As devoted fans of the original series, our goal is to create a film that will not only live up to the expectations of the television series’ fan base, but also expand it to a world-wide audience in ways that only a full-length motion picture can offer.

From the outset of the creative process, the Producers and the Director have envisioned embodying the Airbender universe with a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.

The Director’s vision for this film is one of world, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series, and that is both diverse and inclusive in the make up of the four nations represented in the film’s cinematic world.

Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world.

The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures.

In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and Africans.

With this global perspective in mind, we believe we can best honor the true themes, ethos and fantastical nature of the Airbender stories and best capture the spirit and scale of the series to appeal to its worldwide fans.

Our challenge and commitment to our film audience is to harness all the elements that have made the series the incredible phenomenon it is.

We look forward to introducing you to THE LAST AIRBENDER next summer.


The Producers


MANAA responded with this letter:

April 9, 2009

Dear Producers of The Last Airbender;

Thank you for your letter. Because it raises important questions regarding your perceptions of diversity, we are again requesting a meeting to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie (and your future projects) so this film can truly be the success we all want. We are interested, for instance, in how your ideal of including people from “all corners of the globe” correlates with your casting policies. Specifically seeking out white actors and casting four white leads for what M. Night Shymalan admitted was an “Asian fantasy world” does not celebrate ethnic diversity. Re-casting the sole villainous lead with an actor of color is a concession that results in three heroic nations going to war against an evil nation of color.

After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles--but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles.

These are the points MANAA and others—including East West Players and a petition of industry professionals— listed as specific concerns:

* The outdated and discriminatory practice of casting white actors to depict Asian characters.
* Casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for extras.
* Culturally ignorant language used by members of the production (e.g. DeeDee Rickets: “If you’re a Korean, wear a kimono” to the casting call).
* The implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned, partly South Asian actors and a heroic nation led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation.
* Cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise's core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists.

Listing the ethnic composition of five cast members does not directly address these outstanding issues and only serves to obscure the fact that you are making rationalizations to white-wash this project hoping to bring in more viewers. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that in order for fantasy/science fiction/superhero movies to become successful, they must first pass muster with fans of the original source material. You are clearly not passing that bar.

MANAA is a strong supporter of studios’ efforts to increase diversity, but it is absurd to use that as an excuse to make a project more white and to say the original concept wasn’t diverse enough when the cultures of the four Asian nations clearly were.

Conversely, does this mean that in the future, you’ll take a story featuring only white people but make a movie with the top four stars all initially being persons of color?

How can you, in good faith, say you are trying to honor the integrity of the television series by taking a story written with Asian themes, settings, characters, and populating it with white leads—especially when there are so few Asian roles available in Hollywood? You are continuing a generations-long practice of racial discrimination where the opportunity for actors of color to be heroes for a change is taken away (this time in the name of “diversity.”).

Fortunately, one of your rivals, Disney/Pixar, was enlightened enough to create an Asian American hero in next month’s film Up. They obviously don’t believe that having Asian faces as leads will turn off the majority of their potential audience. In fact, they are probably counting on the unique look of that hero (Asian American boy who’s overweight) to interest ticket buyers.

If your production values the support of the thousands of fans and members of the public disturbed by the casting of The Last Airbender adaptation, we urge you to address their concerns more honestly. Again, we are requesting to meet as soon as possible to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie so that the film can be a success. We look forward to hearing from you sometime next week.


Guy Aoki

Founding President, MANAA

Friday, April 10, 2009

Mr. Yunioshi featurette decoded with Mark Young

Despite the beauty and iconicity of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was one thing that stuck out as being a terrible mistake, particularly to Asian Americans—the character of Mr.Yunioshi. Played by Mickey Rooney, the role called for using makeup and prosthetics to transform the White actor into a caricature of a Japanese man. This practice, called “yellowface,” was unfortunately fairly common in early cinema, but Rooney took the act to new lows by affecting a hideous accent and generally making the character an embarrassing buffoon. When producers began planning extra featurettes for the Centennial Collection’s version of the film, Eric Young of Sparkhill saw the opportunity to openly discuss the problem of Mr. Yunioshi.

“It was almost like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on,” said his brother Mark Young, who eventually produced the segment, Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.”

Young knew that he wanted to interview a panel of experts for the featurette, so he started making phone calls to academics who studied representations of Asian Americans in the media. Since it was the beginning of the school year, they were too busy to participate in the project. That’s when he turned to MANAA, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

“When I was able to reach Phil Lee at MANAA it was like reaching pay dirt, he was so receptive and he invited me to a meeting,” said Young. “When I first met the group at MANAA’s meeting I knew I’d have a nice lively group of individuals to interview, each with a different personality. Everyone’s background was different so we had different voices in discussing the same topic.”

From MANAA, Young found President Phil Lee, Vice President Jeffery Mio, and Founding President Guy Aoki. Since they wanted to include a female perspective as well, they suggested Marilyn Tokuda, an actress who had a long history of acting in films and was currently involved with East West Players.

In the 17-minute segment, stories of reactions to the film and the character of Mr. Yunioshi eventually opened into wider territory. Lee, Mio, Aoki and Tokuda also discuss the Japanese American internment, activism toward redress for Japanese Americans, the perils of being an Asian American actor/actress, and the impact of George Takei’s role on Star Trek for the Asian American community, among other topics.

“I know I’ll get specific answers to specific questions to build my story, but I like to leave room for personal stories or other topics or issues that are important to the person I’m interviewing,” said Young. “I found it very interesting to hear from the interviews what it’s like, what impression the movie made on them, and growing up in the environment with yellowface being part of the culture. Myself, an Anglo, not having that sensitivity but in hearing the stories, I gained a real appreciation for it.”

It may seem strange for a studio to include information on their own DVD that criticizes the film, but Young said that Paramount was open to the idea from the first proposal. They were curious to see how the segment would turn out, but he says that when they saw the final product they were happy to put it on the DVD. For his part, Young is proud to have contributed to a discussion of these important issues.

“For me personally I’ll always remember it,” he said. “It’s a standout both because of the subject matter and the people I met and interviewed for it.”

For the entire interview, check out: www.manaa.org

Sunday, April 05, 2009

ER hype obscures invisibilty of Asian American doctors

The racial makeup of the doctors did not accurately reflect the number of Asian American physicians in Chicago.

Guy Aoki's letter to the editor was published in the LA Times today:


Enough with reverential, self-congratulatory articles on the end of "ER." One of the legacies your paper failed to discuss is how the series failed to acknowledge the existence of Asian American doctors in a meaningful way.

In Chicago, where the show takes place, 15% of physicians are of Asian descent, more than black and Latino physicians combined. Yet John Wells and company waited until the fifth season to add an Asian American regular (Ming-Na), only after casting a Croatian doctor first. That's a joke. Yes, Parminder Nagra later joined the cast, but she's British.

Guy Aoki
Los Angeles