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Oscars Countdown: Asian representation in Hollywood needs to change


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In the Academy Award’s history, only one Best Actress in a Leading Role nominee has been of Asian origins: Anglo-Indian Merle Oberon, in 1935. In the Male category, Ben Kingsley also remains the sole Asian contender with two nominations, including one win for Gandhi in 1982.

This year, the nominations include no Asians in any of the acting categories for leading or supporting - a downgrade from last year, when Indian actor Dev Patel was nominated for his supporting role in Lion (2016). Many were hoping Vietnamese- American actress Hong Chau would score a nomination in the supporting category for her acclaimed role in Downsizing (2017). In fact, of all the main categories (Best Picture, the four acting categories, Best Director, Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay), Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani is the only Asian nominee for his original screenplay of The Big Sick (2017), co-written with his wife Emily Gordon.

Of course, this shortage of nominations is merely symptom of a larger problem within Hollywood: the lack of Asian representation in films. A USC study finds that in the 100 top films of 2014, only 5.3% of speaking roles were given to Asian actors (73.1% were white, 4.9% were Latino, 12.5% were Black). Moreover, between 2007 and 2014 (excl. 2011), only 2.4% of the 700 top films had Asian directors.

The lack of Asians in film is worsened by a Hollywood habit of giving roles originally made for Asians to white actors, due to studios fearing an Asian lead will reduce box-office performances. To name a few, The Great Wall (2017), Ghost in the Shell (2017), Death Note (2017) and, this year, Annihilation (2018) have all been accused of whitewashing their leading Asian characters.

After it was announced Tilda Swinton would play the role of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016), a Tibetan man in the comics, Japanese-American actor George Takei said: “Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here.”

The film’s whitewashing also prompted the launch of social-media campaign #StarringJohnCho. It showed the South Korean-American actor photoshopped as the lead character in an array of blockbuster films such as The Martian (2015) and The Avengers (2012), making clear the desire for more Asian leads in films. It was followed promptly by #StarringConstanceWu.

Asian representation in television is looking somewhat less bleak, with popular series such as Master of None (which explores the issue in depth in its episode “Indians on TV”), Quantico, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Elementary, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Fresh off the Boat all having Asian leads. The latter especially is a refreshing take on the American sitcom, focusing on an East-Asian American family- the first one of its kind since 1994’s All-American Girl.

Still, progress is needed. Last year, the popular comedy sketch series Saturday Night Live produced a Star Trek parody sketch. To play the Japanese Lieutenant Sulu, originally portrayed by Takei, the series had to resort to using veteran production designer Akira Yoshimura, something they had already done three times since 1976. In fact, in SNL’s 43 year-long history and 150 cast members, only Rob Schneider and Fred Armisen have had any Asian heritage: they are, respectively, a quarter Filipino and a quarter Japanese. As for women, there has only been Nasim Pedrad, who is Iranian-American.

Being half-Vietnamese myself, I was thrilled to see the adult animated series BoJack Horseman have a smart, non-cliché Vietnamese-American woman as one of its lead- something I had never seen before. My thrill was followed by disappointment when I learned Diane Nguyen was voice by a white actress (to his credit, the series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg addressed the issue in depth in an interview with Uproxx, instead of ignoring it).

In the Simpsons, the Indian character of Apu - also voiced by a white actor - was recently the subject of documentary film The Problem with Apu, by comedian Hari Kondabolu. In it, Kondabolu argues that Apu contributes to the spread of racist stereotypes of South Asians through caricatural behaviour and microaggressions.

As China and other Asian markets are becoming increasingly significant for Hollywood, many blockbuster films have made it a habit to feature Asian actors in supporting roles to increase diversity (Suicide Squad with Karen Fukuhara; the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 with Pom Klementieff; Rogue One with Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, and Jiang Wen). Last year, Vietnamese actress Kelly Marie Tran was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair with the rest of her Star Wars: The Last Jedi co-stars. This made her the first Asian woman to appear on the magazine’s cover in its 104-year history.

Moreover, there are some Asian-centric films coming soon, including a live-action adaptation of Disney’s renowned Mulan in 2019 (with Liu Yifei playing the titular role). This August sees the release of Crazy Rich Asians, based on the best-selling novel of the same name. The comedy will feature an entirely East-Asian cast, including Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ken Jeong.

As the #MeToo movement and #OscarsSoWhite campaign have shone light on Hollywood’s deeply ingrained sexism and diversity problems, I am hoping Asian talent will feature more prominently in the film and TV industry. Both Black Panther and Get Out, films with a predominantly black casts, have been critical and commercial successes, attesting audiences welcoming, and even longing for more diversity on screen. A lack of Asians in films means a lack of Asian and Asian-American stories being told. It encourages stigmatization as opposed to inclusivity, which in turn enables the perpetuation of racist stereotypes.

This year, the Academy Awards are celebrating their 90th show. Hopefully, with the cessation of whitewashing and an increase in opportunities, we will likewise be able to celebrate more Asian nominees and winners in the near future.

The 90th Academy Awards will take place on March 4th.

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