One of the biggest themes of 2016 regarding Asian Americans in the media, unfortunately, was our continued exclusion in movies. Not only were our actors not allowed to star in films, even roles written for Asian characters ended up being played by whites or blacks.
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag took off after the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences revealed that for the second year in a row, all 20 of the nominated actors in lead and supporting roles were white. Yet that movement apparently led some in the industry to mistakenly believe that only African Americans were outraged.
Seeing that not enough had changed since Jesse Jackson’s 1996 protest against the Oscars, the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition (of which I’m a member) decided to begin reaching out to the top six movie studios asking for ethnic data on their projects and annual meetings as we’ve done with the television networks since 1999/2000.
On television, the Asian Broadcasting Company (ABC) continued to give us two Asian American family sitcoms (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken”) and a drama starring Priyanka Chopra (“Quantico”).
Here, in roughly chronological order, is my take on some of the significant people, television shows, movies, and incidents that impacted Asian Americans in 2016.
January: Schizoid Award to Chelsea Handler for her contradictory attitudes on race in her Netflix documentary “Chelsea Does Racism.” While clearly siding with illegal Mexican immigrants and showing compassion for the historic plight of blacks and Native Americans, the comedian still laughed when I read the joke she’d done on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” which stereotyped Angelina Jolie’s then-three-year-old Vietnamese son Pax as someone who was “going to be a horrible driver “but “amazing at doing nails.” While talking to two Latinas, Handler also admitted, “I hate Asian guys. I’ve never dated them.”
February: Et tu, Brute? Award to Oscars host Chris Rock for botching his 10-minute monologue by complaining only about the lack of opportunities for African Americans. His daughter’s Girl Scout troop (actors) were all black. As were all those (except for a white guy used as a joke) he interviewed outside a fake Compton Theatre even when Latinos outnumber blacks two-to-one in that city. And adding insult to injury, he brought on three Asian American kids, mocking them for being good at math and for making iphones.
Double Standard Award to Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and President Cheryl Boone Isaacs for ignoring complaints from yours truly and others the day after the Oscars telecast. Hudson said they’d address the issue throughout the year (but not now). In March, they even ignored the letter from 25 Asian/Asian American Academy members until they went public with it six days later. It led to a lame “We’re sorry you feel that way” response from the Academy office. When Asian Americans took them to task on social media, Hudson finally responded later that afternoon with an apology. She and Boone Isaacs later met with the 25 members, and I blasted Hudson on a conference call. It’s tough being taken seriously when you’re not angry and black.
April: Shame the Family Award to Paul Tanaka, who was found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstructing justice while second-in-command at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. The jury confirmed what unbiased observers had known for years: That Tanaka had been the ringleader of a thug-like prison system, making him almost no better than those he kept locked up. The felon had the audacity to run for sheriff in 2015 and in June was sentenced to five years in prison.
“Throw Everything Against the Wall and Hope Something Sticks” Award to C. Robert Cargill for his series of lame excuses for why “Dr. Strange’s” The Ancient One”couldn’t be played by an Asian actor. Cargill, who co-wrote the Marvel superhero film with director Scott Derrickson, said the Tibetan character, introduced in the ’60s comic book, was racist (hardly), stereotyped and unsalvageable (but a white woman like Tilda Swinton would make it OK?). They couldn’t create a Tibetan hero because it would annoy China, the second-biggest movie market in the world. And they couldn’t cast a Chinese person as a Tibetan as it’d be an oppressor playing the underdog. Yet Cargill and Derrickson wrote Strange’s servant Wong as a non-stereotyped character. So were they just not that talented as writers, or did they just want to use Swinton?…
May: Vanguard Award to William Yu, who created the #StarringJohnCho social movement by photoshopping the actor onto movie posters in place of white stars to help Hollywood envision Cho (and other Asian American men) as leading men.
May: Arghh! Award to Tai Trang, who blew his chance to win “Survivor: Kaoh Rong” with his undecipherable jury speech. The skinny, gay 51-year-old Vietnamese gardener surprised many by winning mental and physical challenges, won an immunity challenge, found another immunity idol, and changed the entire game by turning against his male alliance that was voting off women. If not for Tai, the two who were in the Final 3 with him wouldn’t have made it that far. That’s all he had to say. Instead, he launched into some flowery Buddhist-sounding poem that went over everyone’s heads. He didn’t get a single vote.
Thankfully, the popular player is being brought back for the next installment of the long-running competition in March. In the meantime, practice making better speeches.
June: Invisible Award to The Los Angeles Times for not including a single Asian face on their front-page cover story about the new diverse members invited to join the Motion Picture Academy.
July: Huh?! Award to George Takei for being disappointed that Sulu would be gay in the “Star Trek” movie series. Though the producers decided to pay tribute to the activist by reflecting his sexual orientation in the character he originated, Takei told me it showed a lack of imagination and went against creator Gene Roddenberry’s concept for the helmsman (though he couldn’t have been gay in the ’60s anyway).
Cutest Couple Award to James Huling and Natalie Negrotti of “Big Brother 18” for showing the sensitive side of a Southern Asian American gentleman. Negrotti called him her soul mate, the one who made her trust a man again.
August: Hypocrite/White-Washer Award to “Kubo and the Two Strings” director Travis Knight for hiring white actors to play an entire extended Japanese family in medieval times: The title character, his parents, his two aunts, and his grandfather. Knight had the nerve to promote his stop-motion animated movie at JANM, claiming, “My childhood introduction to Japan was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with a great culture, one we wholeheartedly pay tribute to with this lovingly hand-crafted film.” Right… by giving all the main parts to white people like you.
September: Pride Award to Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang for winning the Emmy for best writing on a comedy series (the “Parents” episode of “Master of None”). It was great to see two Asian Americans representing our community, and Yang pointed out that there are just as many Asian Americans as Italian Americans, yet they got tough iconic characters and we got Long Duk Dong (“16 Candles”). Yang also asked Asian American parents to “get your kids cameras instead of violins.”
October: Arigato Award to Steven Yeun for making millions of viewers worry about the possible death of Glenn Rhee on “The Walking Dead.” The beloved character got fans up in arms in October of 2015 when it looked as if he’d met an early death while attacked in front of a trash dumpster by a bunch of (what else?) zombies, leading to fan videos arguing why he could still be alive (he was). Still, fans knew that according to the comic book, Glenn was scheduled to buy the farm once Negan arrived on the scene, which he did in the April season finale. 17 million (and the second-highest 18-49 age group rating in its history) tuned in to see if he was indeed clubbed to death (spoiler alert: he was). Viewers caring about an Asian American character? They just might care about real-life Asian Americans, too.
November: “Last in Your Class?” Award to Carl Higbie, co-chair and spokesperson for the Great America PAC for Donald Trump, who told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that he was in favor of starting a registry for Muslim immigrants entering the U.S. “We’ve done it based on race,” he reminded her, citing the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. To Higbie, who annoyingly began many of his sentences with “Look,” I’ll speak your language: Look, you must’ve flunked history and/or reading comprehension because President Reagan apologized to those who were imprisoned, and he agreed that each survivor should be paid $20,000 in reparations. So how could you possibly interpret the incarceration as a good thing?
Arigato II Award to writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig for casting Chinese Canadian Hayden Szeto as a love interest opposite Hailee Steinfeld in the critically acclaimed comedy “Edge of Seventeen.” Szeto’s Erwin Kim gives hope to every awkward high school student often overlooked by the popular girls. A warm and memorable film that one reviewer said makes every single character in it sympathetic. Huh! That it does.
Vanguard II Award to the creators of Disney’s “Moana,” which set the gold standard for how to approach making films about an ethnic community: Hire people from that community as writers, composers, and actors (all except one character was voiced by a Pacific Islander). Travis Knight, take note!
December: Dunce Cap Award to Los Angeles Times Travel Section Editor Catharine Hamm, who printed two racist letters supporting the Japanese American concentration camps. According to the paper, Hamm “approved publishing the letters, thinking the writers’ views, although provocative, would be balanced by subsequent letters of response. Hamm said that, in retrospect, that was not the right decision because the views expressed in the letters did not lend themselves to reasoned discussion.”
What should letter writers re-argue next? If millions of Jews actually did die in death camps during World War II? If slavery really was a bad thing or just propaganda from “the mainstream media?”
General: Most Improved Casting Award to “Hawaii Five-O” for finally using Asian Pacific Islanders in guest starring roles (special agent, therapist, family services rep, other police officers) and not just suspects. It only took another conference call between me and CBS executives to once again assert it was too predictable that APIs were cast just to already be dead or to die in a shootout without uttering a single word. My simple suggestion: Fly out APIs from the mainland for guest roles, not just whites and blacks.
General: Arigato III Award to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brock McKenna for continuing to entertain with one of the smartest, funniest shows on television — one with a constant Asian American male love interest. They even hire more Asian American writers and directors than the ABC Asian American family sitcoms.
As my 24th year here comes to a close, I want to thank all of you for supporting this column. Hopefully, you’ll care enough about how we’re portrayed in the media to come to a MANAA meeting to help improve things (third Thursday of the month in Chinatown. Email me for more details). ’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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.