When an Asian American gets to direct an episode of a television show, I’m curious to see if they include more Asian Americans than usual. I scrutinize them even more when they’re an Asian American regular of the series. For instance, Lucy Liu’s now directed two episodes of “Elementary,” the whodunnit she co-stars in with Jonny Lee Miller.
In the most recent one, I noticed she included an Asian female immigrant, an Asian American male guard, and another Asian man who’s killed before we really get to know him. That’s not much, but it’s more than we usually get on the show. In fact, I think the only other time I’d previously ever seen another Asian person besides her in the past three-and-a-half seasons was when she got together with her family (what was that, once? Twice?).
Why is it when an Asian American gets top or close to top billing in a series, we have to “pay for it” by barely seeing any other Asian regulars or even guests on it? That was certainly true of the CW’s “Nikita” starring Maggie Q. Although I missed a few episodes, I only remember one instance where there were any Asians. It focused around Russell Wong, who was part of a Chinese triad (well, of course!). And let’s not talk about “The Mindy Project” shall we? It’s far too early in the column, and we don’t want to risk indigestion.
The power of a director on a television show is not as strong as a director on a motion picture. They may not have much choice over what script they get to shoot and the show runner (executive producer) is still calling the shots. But I know from talking to Asian American directors at the DGA that they do have some say over casting. In fact, one noted Asian American director told me when she looked at a script, she found it devoid of non-white people. She thought, “Let’s try to get some diversity in here!” and hired some minority actors.
So it was with a great deal of interest that I watched Daniel Dae Kim’s directorial debut on the Feb. 27 episode of “Hawaii Five-O.” There were six guest actors who were mentioned in the opening minutes of the show. Only one was Asian or Pacific Islander —Taylor Wily, who recurs as the obese shrimp truck owner Kamekona. As usual, he appeared in the final scene of the show for 40 seconds.
The other five included Jon Lovitz and Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, making a return; though he’s hardly an actor, so why use him?). Well, I’m sure the Jewish community was happy. God knows they’re so underrepresented in the media.
In the secondary set of credits that run over the closing credits, there were three more APIs and three whites. So a total of four APIs and eight whites. Kinda average for this series, which uses twice as many white people as APIs, which is the exact inverse proportion of Hawaii’s real-life population.
Arden Cho played a woman (Mia Price) who works at a jewelry store that’s robbed, but it turns out she’s in cahoots with the woman who planned it. They’re even lovers.
Local legend Mal Cabang made a welcome cameo as the landlord of a building, bringing his natural pidgin English voice to this rebooted series that’s always been sorely needing it.
And there was Dennis Chun, the real-life son of Kam Fong, who played the original Chin Ho in the ’68-’80 series. Usually, he gets to utter two sentences to the Five-O team to bring them up to speed on the latest murder victim, then leaves to let them pursue the crooks.
This time, though, for the first time ever, Sgt. Duke Lukela got to participate in an interrogation of a suspect in their dungeon alongside Steve McGarrett and Danny “Danno” Williams. So kudos to Daniel Dae Kim if he arranged for that. Let’s see more of Duke. Because I can’t tell you how many times I have to put up with scenes where the only cops in this Hawaiian task force are white and black people. That wasn’t the case in the old series.
It didn’t help that Grace Park (Kono Kalakaua) disappeared between the 6½-minute mark and the 43½-minute mark!
And what did the episode focus on? McGarrett and Williams’ patented (well, scratch that, it’s copied from the guys in “NCIS: LA”) bickering. In fact, their stake-out of one of the crooks in an apartment really dragged (a total of 21½ minutes! That’s half the show, not counting the commercials!).
The episode had a side plot where Jerry Ortega (Jorge Garcia) spends time with an elderly lady (Cloris Leachman) who hasn’t gotten out much since the death of her husband. Fine, but when is the focus ever on a local API? Why not cast an elderly API who could bring some real island flavor to this place?
An API who had a small part was given the name “Deputy Brennan,” meaning the writers weren’t even thinking of casting a local in this role (hint, guys: If you write a character as API, chances are you’ll find someone who can play it; leave it as white, you’ll find white).
Incidentally, last week’s episode, directed by Chinese American Larry Teng, featured one API and five non-APIs in the opening credits but eight APIs (including a classroom with speaking parts for two local students and an API teacher) and three non-APIs in the closing credits for a total of nine APIs and eight non-APIs. And mind you, one was designated “Desk Guard.” So we’re talking a huge presence, to be sure!
Still, Teng’s inclusion of APIs was better than DDK’s.
Oscar Leftovers: Didn’t have space to cover this last time out, but some thoughts on the Oscars telecast. With the academy embarrassed that there were only white people nominated in the 20 acting slots, you know they’d try to put their best face forward. So host Neil Patrick Harris joked about this being about “the best and the whitest — uh, brightest! Sorry.”
Then there was that running gag where he asked Octavia Spencer to watch his Oscar predictions he’d placed in a glass box (you know, to remind people they’ve honored black people in the past and to keep her on camera as much as possible). They also went to shots of David Oyelowo — who wasn’t even nominated for playing Martin Luther King in “Selma” — as much as possible, especially whenever the discussion turned to, uh, black topics.
In the end, I’m just glad they saw fit to include James Shigeta and Jimmy Murakami in the “In Memoriam” segment. MANAA had sent a letter to the academy reminding them of Shigeta’s accomplishments. It’s one thing to not have anything to show for people of color in 2015; it would’ve been unforgivable to ignore noted people of color from the past who died.
LA Weekly Cover Boy Department? Well, not exactly. Dennis Romero did a cover story on “How Hollywood Keeps Minorities Out.” I spoke to him for quite a bit and knew I made the final cut because a photographer later called to set up a session for it. He must’ve taken over 200 pictures solely of my head, so I’m glad he wound up finding something usable. In the article I got to say a full three sentences.
But I had to laugh when I turned to the table of contents and saw my face under that title (kinda made me wonder if it was about keeping minorities out of Hollywood or just me!). Then that same shot was on the inside story placed back-to-back with my old comrade Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. I thought that was a nice touch.
So inevitably, some of my best points got left on the cutting-room floor. Besides my published assertion that there probably isn’t one minority who has the power to greenlight a film, I also wanted to point out that these executives reject projects with too many people of color, assuming they won’t do well, and then approve the casting of everyone in a film they make. That limits access right there.
Therefore, the chronic excuse — “There just weren’t that many meaty roles for minority actors this year” — stems from that. How many people of color do these white executives allow to really show their talent?
I mean, just a few years ago, Universal Pictures wouldn’t allow Justin Lin to even audition Sung Kang for “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Somehow, it was natural to have a black teenage rapper (Bow Wow) in Japan yet not a Korean American — in a movie based on the import car culture, which was invented by Asian Americans.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.