diversity

Asian Representation in Film: The Impact of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

With box office hit and the critically well-received 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood has come a long way since Asian and Asian American stereotype characters like Long Duk Dong in 1984’s Sixteen Candles, or, even worse, dated, racist portrayals like that of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Prior to Crazy Rich Asians, it had been 25 years since the world saw a predominantly Asian cast in a big-budget Hollywood — with 1993’s The Joy Luck Club — that isn’t about martial arts, nerds, or a period piece with subtitles. Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a moving, funny, beautifully shot romantic comedy showcasing a modern Asian diaspora who speak English as their primary language.

According to the most recent report by the United Nations, Asians represent close to 60% of the world’s population, while a separate report conducted by USC Annenberg in 2017 revealed that out of 1,100 popular films, 70.7% of the characters were Caucasian and only 6.3% were of Asian descent.

With this significant imbalance, movie audiences have had very limited exposure on the big screen to the diversity they most likely see in everyday life, as well as alienating Asian viewers and doing nothing for preconceived, problematic notions of Asians as the funny sidekick, the kung-fu master, the chopstick-yielding exchange student, and every other broad stereotype that has played out in film.

Beyond the predictable and limited examples of Asians depicted in mainstream film, Hollywood also ostracized Asian actors through its tendency to whitewash films by casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles — something that Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, the novel that was adapted into the 2018 film — was no stranger to.

When talking to The Guardian about the buzz circling around his book and being approached for movie deals, Kwan mentioned a particular, prominent producer who told him he’d be interested if they changed the protagonist, Rachel Chu (played by Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu) into a white character. “I think it was a request born out of sheer ignorance about the project, and it was a very … kneejerk reaction that was indicative of how Hollywood saw its industry, how they felt movies needed to be made, and how they felt a movie with all Asians would just never work,” he said.

Sticking to his guns, Kwan eventually teamed with Chinese American director Jon M. Chu, who shared his belief in the importance and necessity of Asian representation in the film adaptation. Chu was originally offered a healthy sum of money from Netflix (exceeding that of Warner Brothers’ which went on to produce the film) but turned it down. Justifying the decision to do so, he told NBC Nightly News, “we knew the importance of the project was to get it on the big screen — there’s a sign there that says ‘we are worth that energy, we are worth your time’ — for a big Hollywood studio to send that message, we knew was an important message to send the world.”

For many, that message was heard. Beyond the actors in Crazy Rich Asians being diverse in more ways than one, they also portray a deep humanity of the characters through their individual hopes, dreams, relationship problems, and longing for love and acceptance, creating a more fleshed out and truer representation of Asians in the real world.

Continuing to break box office records with a global total of $236 million, Crazy Rich Asians is now the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the last decade. The message Chu refers to has been received with open arms; and with that, comes open doors, open minds, and hopefully, many more diverse and stereotype-free films from the entertainment industry.

Racial Inclusion – or the Lack Thereof – in Mainstream Media

By Jennifer Betit Yen, President of Asian American Film Lab

Inclusion and diversity have been trending in Hollywood, yet we are — or should I say we remain? — in an inclusion crisis.

Statistics about racial inclusion in film have remained stagnant since 2007, meaning that despite more light being shed on the issue through headlines, social media, and discussion, little real or consistent progress has been made over the past decade. Black Panther aside, we are still seeing a larger story that it is not an easy time to be an American actor or filmmaker of color. Frankly, there’s never really been a good time.

To put this in perspective, The Hollywood Diversity 2018 report states that only 1.4 out of every 10 leading actors are people of color. And USC Annenberg’s 2017 report on diversity the top 900 films shows the sad difference between diversity in the real world compared to the current state of representation in Hollywood:

  •      29.2% of all characters were from minority racial/ethnic groups, compared to 38.7% of the actual U.S. population coming from minority racial/ethnic groups.
  •      Despite the low number of minority characters in the top 900 films, 49% of the movie-going public who went to see these films come from minority racial/ethnic groups.

Clearly, these numbers are just not adding up.

And it’s not better behind-the-scenes: Annenberg found that there were only 30 Asian directors in all 900 films — and only two of those directors were women.       

From problematic classics such as The Good Earth and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where white actors played Asian characters, to recent major films that have made the problematic choices of casting white stars to play minority characters, actors and filmmakers of color are often shocked and confused by the choice to whitewash minority characters.[1] Strangely, as the population of Asian Americans in the United States has increased, our representation on TV and in film has decreased — the only racial group this was reported as happening to.

Yet study after study shows that, actually, diversely cast films and shows make far more money than homogenous shows. Yes! It’s true! Audiences are demanding diversity.

In an article in The New York Times, one journalist put it quite succinctly, saying, “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 [increasing] the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood? For years, audiences have essentially boycotted these films, yet studios keep making them.”

Change is coming, though, and it’s coming from independent filmmakers who work outside of the Hollywood system to create original, diverse, and authentic films — and that’s why I work with the Film Lab. That’s why the Film Lab[2] is here. We create and produce our own content. We encourage our members to create and produce their own content. Content that is bold. Content that is innovative. Content that is — wait for it — diverse. Through the 72 Hour Shootout, an annual global filmmaking competition that gets winning filmmakers network mentorships, exposure and more, and with our incredible sponsors, we provide our filmmakers with platforms on which to exhibit and disseminate that content to a wide range of audiences –not just one homogenous ethnic group, but all audiences.

As U.S. women’s national soccer player Alex Morgan (who, coincidentally, was part of a wage discrimination lawsuit demanding equal pay for equal work) has said, “It’s all about learning to create your own success.” Alex Morgan is one of five players who brought a wage discrimination complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation, as reported by Health Magazine (June 2016).

By making diverse films, we empower ourselves and, by extension, all of us. And by “us,” I don’t just mean Asian Americans. I mean Latinos. I mean African Americans. I mean Native Americans. I mean LGBT. I mean women. I mean men. I mean all of us. #ActionUnites

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them” right? Well, the economics show we can beat the inclusion crisis. The changing face of the entertainment media landscape shows we can beat the inclusion crisis. And the rise of diverse America shows we will beat the inclusion crisis.

We will make our own content and we will support other diverse content. And we will not support content from Hollywood in which Asian American and other diverse faces, characters, voices, and stories are excluded.

As rising filmmakers and storytellers, I encourage you to work hard to tell your story, raise your voice and show your face. So, go on. To the filmmakers out there with the tenacity, the passion, the power, and the talent: carpe diem!

***

Jennifer Betit Yen is the President of the Film Lab, a 501c3 dedicated to the promotion and support of gender and ethnic diversity in mainstream media.  She is also an actor (Search Party, Royal Pains, Film Lab Presents, The Beacon Street Girls), writer (The Opposite of a Fairy Tale) and producer (La La Land, My Not So subConscious, The Opposite of a Fairy Tale, Mirror Mirror). She has received mentions by The New York Times and Backstage Magazine, among others, for her work as an actor. Her film The Opposite of a Fairy Tale, a fictional take on elder abuse, sold out at MOCA and was an official selection of the 39th Annual Asian American International Film Festival, the Palm Springs Desert Film Society, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation NY Shorts Showcase, at the NYC Conference on Elder Abuse, at WOMANKIND, screened at HBO, and was licensed by the City of New York.  A graduate of Cornell University, and Boston University School of Law, Jen authors the blog Ethical is Beautiful.  Be Beautiful (www.EthicalIsBeautifulBeBeautiful.com) and enjoys boxing, fine vegan dining with her adorable husband and running with her also adorable rescue mutt.

[1] Check out the “Fairy Princess Diaries” blog for more on this topic.

[2] www.film-lab.org

Learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

Celebrating People With Disabilities in Film & Television

by Dr. Leona Godin

On July 9, New York City hosted the 3rd Annual Disability Pride Parade. We at NYFA love diversity and wanted to take the opportunity to highlight people with disabilities in film and television, past and present. And to appreciate the industry’s growing interest in employing actors with disabilities to tell stories of people with disabilities.

Micah Fowler

Micah Fowler of the current hit TV show “Speechless” is the Grand Marshal of this year’s Disability Pride Parade. Born with cerebral palsy, Fowler started acting when he was five. In a Vulture interview Fowler said, “I think it is sad that less than two percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that ‘Speechless,’ a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a ‘character’ in the storyline living with a disability.”

Deanne Bray

This deaf actor, discovered dancing with “Prism West,” is best known for starring in the title role in “Sue Thomas F.B.Eye,” based on the real life of a deaf agent who worked for the F.B.I. as a lip reader.

Lou Ferrigno

The bodybuilder turned “Incredible Hulk” in the iconic ’70s TV series lost most of his hearing when he was a child. According to DeafLinx he attributed much of his ambition and success to his disability: “It forced me to maximize my own potential.”

Kitty McGeever

McGeever was the first blind actor to star in a British soap. Having trained at RADA, she lost her sight at the age of 33, shortly before landing her role on “Emmerdale.” She described her character as “naughty” and “manipulative in the extreme” to the BBC, and added Lizzy “uses her disability to her advantage and then disregards it to her advantage whenever and whichever way she chooses.”

Daryl Mitchell

Mitchell was an established actor before a 2001 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. With support from friends, including Denzel Washington and Chris Tucker, he has continued his career and now stars in “NCIS: New Orleans.” He is an advocate for employing actors with disabilities. In an Ability Magazine interview Mitchell says, “You meet with these Labor Department guys, and you can tell everybody is enthused and ready to go. That’s the main thing, really. Their willingness to fly out from Washington and see us in Los Angeles and speak with us says a lot about them. But it’s really a matter of what we need to do, what we’re willing to do as people with disabilities. We need to be more boisterous. We need to let the world know that we’re here.”

NYFA welcomes people with all kinds of abilities. Check out our acting, filmmaking and producing programs, and start changing the face of film and television today!

Black History Month Recap: A Q&A With NYFA Faculty

As Black History Month comes to a close, New York Film Academy celebrates the diversity and strength of its community. We had a chance to sit down with a few members of our faculty to hear their insights and inspirations in light of this important month. Joining the discussion are NYFA’s Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department Nancy Kwang Johnson; digital editing instructor and professional Hollywood editor Leander Sales; and film directing instructor and Chair of Community Outreach Mason Richards.

Here is what they had to say:

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Nancy Kwang Johnson

NYFA: Can you share a little about your career or journey in the entertainment industry, and what has driven your success? What makes you get up in the morning? What are you working for?

Leander Sales: I got into the industry because Spike Lee was determine to see more diversity in the film industry and I was determine to be part of this industry. The joys and duties of being a parent [are what get me up in the morning]. I’m generally a very optimistic person and I look forward to what the future may hold. [I’m working for] My kids and making more movies.

Mason Richards: The film industry is extremely rigorous and challenging because there is no real clear path to success, therefore it takes an extreme amount of tenacity and vigor to navigate. The industry is such that in order to be able to tell your own story, you have to work extremely hard. It’s also a great feeling when you get those opportunities to share your journey and tell the stories that matter most to you.

NYFA: Tell us about the first time you saw a character or story on the big screen that really resonated with you culturally and that you felt you could personally identify with. What was that moment like for you?

Leander Sales: Seeing “Cooley High” and getting a chance to meet the director, Michael Schultz.

Mason Richards: One of my favorite films of all time is “To Sir, With Love” directed by James Clavell — the film tells the story of an idealistic engineer-trainee and his experiences in teaching a group of rambunctious high school students from the slums of London’s East End. One of the reasons I love this film is because it stars one of my favorite actors of all time, Sidney Poitier; and this film was the first time I saw someone on the big screen who was from my birth country, Guyana, South America. It was a great feeling then, and it’s always a great feeling when you see strong characters in leading roles that reflect your identity.

Nancy Kwang Johnson: I am Korean and African American.  My great grandmother on my father’s side is full-blooded Cherokee.  As a result, as a teenager, I would empathize and hold onto every word of Cher’s hit song, “Half Breed.”  

As far as languages go, I grew up in a household with two parents who were fluent in Korean.  As a result, my mother tongue is, and will always be Korean; it’s the only language that I can speak without an accent.  I teach in French and English, and I speak basic Albanian and Wolof.

Because of my mixed racial heritage, I always had two types of dolls when I was growing up – an African American doll and a Korean doll adorned in the national costume (hanbok).  As I did not have dolls that actually looked like me, I gravitated towards female role models on the silver screen – tv and film – who were also mixed like me.  

From the onset, I would gravitate towards my namesake, Nancy Kwan (of “The World of Susie Wong”) as she was my mother’s (Kwang’s) favorite actress and [she] had been on the set of “Susie Wong” during her pregnancy.  

As a child, I was a huge fan of the television show called “Zoom,” because one of the cast members was Puerto Rican, also named Nancy, and looked like me (for example, she wore her hair in two braids). As a teenager, I gravitated towards Irene Cara of the hit show, “Fame” (1980) and Tai Babilonia (the 1980s Olympics hopeful). Why? As a Korean and African-American female teenager, it was refreshing to see aspiring actresses and Olympic-calibre figure skaters break the boundaries of race and gender on the silver screen.

Throughout my college years at Vassar, I would have to say that the person who made the most impression on me would have to be Jennifer Beals of “Flashdance” (1983) for a number of reasons. Jennifer Beals, like myself, was bi-racial, had an upbringing in Chicago, and is also a fellow Ivy Leaguer. She attended Yale and I attended Cornell.  

In 2012, I was invited to the first White House Korean-American briefing.  On this momentous occasion, I would have to confess that of the 150 plus Korean-Americans in attendance I was one of two Korean-Americans who had an African-American parent.

The French have a saying, “…bien dans sa eau (to be comfortable within one’s skin).  With respect to images on and off of the silver screen coupled with the absence of images – that look like me – I am comfortable within my skin.

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Mason Richards

NYFA: Is there a particular film, piece of art, or Black artist that has had a profound impact on your life? Why?

Mason Richards: I’m inspired by the art of Jean Michel Basquiat, not only because of his use of color, form and medium, but also for his ability to tell his personal stories through art – this inspires me as a filmmaker. 

Leander Sales: James Baldwin’s books have been very important to me because while I lived abroad, I often found myself reading his book of essays “Nobody Knows My Name.” Why? His essays gave me deep insight into American and European racism.

NYFA: What stories would you like to see brought to the screen that are yet untold?

Leander Sales: There are many, but I would like to see more movies like “Hidden Figures,” “Malcolm X,” etc. I guess you would say historical which may be movies we may find on Netflix.

NYFA: How have you seen the industry shift or grow over time in terms of diversity in representation?

Leander Sales: Recently, things are getting very interesting after a few years of #OscarsSoWhite. We will see if this is temporary.

NYFA: What is your favorite moment from Black television history?

Leander Sales: I have to say my favorite moment was when I realized we, as a people, have a lot of work ahead of us. Why? We have so much to offer to this world. Our talents and genius has made this world a better place. Can you imagine America without African Americans?

NYFA: How does your culture, environment, and experience inspire your artwork?

Leander Sales: Many things have influence me, but visiting Africa six times really gave me a deeper understanding of who we are as a people and who I am as an individual.

Mason Richards: I like to tell stories that reflect the world we live in. Film is a beautiful medium to inspire, reveal, and share different views and perspectives of the world.

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Leander Sales

NYFA: Any words of wisdom for aspiring black artists and creators?

Leander Sales: Put in the work. Climb to the top and throw the rope back down.

Mason Richards:  It’s really important for any artist or filmmaker to tell their own personal truths; and although this can be intimidating and challenging at times, it’s an amazing feeling when you get to see your story, your personal truth, and your own narrative on the big screen.

NYFA: Is there anything we’ve missed that you’d like to speak on?

Nancy Kwang Johnson: Having lived abroad (namely, South Korea, France, Senegal, Canada, and Albania), I learned very quickly that the manner in which race is conceptualized in the U.S. differs greatly from its European, Asian, and African counterparts. As a result, I have become accustomed to the social construction of race, and know that in the U.S. people tend to fixate on the one-drop rule (if you have one drop of Black blood then you are black). For example, in the U.S., people tend to categorize me as Black albeit I self-identify as Korean and Black, or I will check the “other” box and list both Korean and Black.

On the other hand, all of the other countries that I have lived in (such as South Korea, France, Senegal, Canada, and Albania), I am deemed as the exotic “other” and racial mixing is more accepted. In South Korea, I have the same racial mixture as Hines Ward. In France, Parisians approach me and greet me in Polynesian. In Senegal, I am called “Madame Chinoise.” In Canada, I am classified as a Francophone and a First Nations member. And in Albania, I am dubbed the Francophone Ivy Leaguer with North Korean ancestry who is also biracial like President Obama.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Nancy Kwang Johnson, Leander Sales, and Mason Richards for taking the time to share a part of their stories with our community.