White Washing the Big Screen

One writer’s perspective on non-Asian actors playing Asian and Asian American characters. This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.

By Judy Ho

In the past two years, Hollywood film adaptations such as “21,” “Dragon Ball Evolution” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” have received controversial outcries from angry moviegoers and fans.  Letters of protests have been written to Hollywood producers, YouTube video rants have been uploaded and blogs have exploded with cries of racial injustice — all in response to the lack of Asian American representation in films that were written specifically for an Asian American cast.

The movie industry responded with a mediocre attempt to appease protesters by re-casting one or two Asian Americans in films, but the actors were still being cast as token secondary characters or stereotyped villains.  Although John Cho and Kal Penn are exceptions with their leads in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” they are only two out of many.

Today, complex Asian characters played by real Asian Americans remain numerically challenged due to some of these excuses:

  1. Asian American actors in lead roles don’t make enough money for big screen movies.
  2. There aren’t enough talented Asian American actors available.
  3. Producers are used to the stereotypical image of Asian Americans.

First, “Harold & Kumar,” which had two Asian American leads, grossed $23,936,908 worldwide and was well received by critics.  And before the martial artist stereotype, Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” became one of the year’s highest grossing films and has grossed over $200 million worldwide.

Second, casting Asian Americans is determined by casting directors, but most discrimination occurs when the casting directors are Asian American themselves because they don’t always search thoroughly for talented Asian American actors.  However, plenty of quality Asian American actors exist in the Screen Actors Guild, which has its own sub-committee for Asian Pacific Americans.  Sandra Oh, for example, won a Golden Globe for her talent.

Finally, the older generation of producers tends to be old-fashioned and have grown up thinking Asians should look and act a certain part, even if it is stereotypical.  Producers believed these roles made money and there was little change.  Gedde Watanabe, Pat Morita and Jackie Chan are all examples of type-casted Asian American actors who played stereotypical roles.  I want to say that the film industry has improved at providing Asian Americans with lead roles.  Yet, I can’t help but be discouraged to know that opportunities have been taken away from Asian Americans to play characters who represent their ethnicity and have the complexity of human beings.

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