The cast of “The White Lotus” includes Steve Zahn, Murray Bartlett, Connie Britton, Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady. (HBO)

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) — the nonprofit, all-volunteer media watchdog that recently celebrated its 30th anniversary — is asking the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to not reward “White Lotus” with Emmys for Outstanding Limited Series or Anthology Series, casting, writing or directing.

The HBO mini-series recently received 20 Emmy nominations. Eight of its actors were nominated in the Outstanding Actor (three out of the seven slots) or Actress (five out of seven) in a Limited Series or Anthology categories and none of them were Asian or Pacific Islander (API). They couldn’t be because despite being set on Maui, creator/writer/director Mike White neglected to use the majority (60%) of the people who actually live in the 50th State — APIs.

Ironically, in the mini-series — which preached against white privilege, racism and historic mistreatment of Hawaiians — Mike White used white and two Black/biracial characters to discuss it. APIs barely got to appear and speak (only two had any lines) and none were cast members.

“Let’s do the ‘Substitution Test,’” suggests MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, who was born and raised in Hawaii. “Suppose ‘White Lotus’ took place at a Nigerian resort with only two Black employees given any lines — the first disappearing after the first episode and the second speaking only in two later installments — and only white and Asian cast members discussed how Blacks were screwed over by the powers that be… How would the African American community react?

“Would ‘White Lotus’ still be critically acclaimed, garnering the third-highest number of Emmy nominations of all shows this year? Would it still get a second season?”

In reality, many APIs work at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea — the real hotel used in “White Lotus” — in hospitality, as personal trainers and historians. The director of public relations and director of people and culture are API.

If the spa manager in “White Lotus” had been API instead of Black (Natasha Rothwell), when she’s encouraged then abandoned by Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), Mike White could’ve demonstrated that white people are still breaking promises to APIs in Hawaii. It wouldn’t have been a stretch: In reality, the spa manager at that real resort **is** API. So is the assistant spa manager.

In an interview with The New Yorker, White, who lives on Kauai, admitted, “It’s a complex place, and I didn’t feel like I could tell the story of the Native Hawaiians and their struggles to fight some of their battles, but I felt like I could kind of come at it from the way I experienced it.”

Why, then, did he not hire API writers, who could’ve better helped bring his vision to fruition and cast more APIs in the process? They might’ve pointed out that making the characters played by Alexandra Daddario and Brittany O’Grady (and the aforementioned Natasha Rothwell) API would’ve enabled him to make even more points about white privilege and racism.

In October 2021, MANAA raised its concerns with HBO head Casey Bloys, whom MANAA had met with as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition in 2014 (Pacific Islanders were outraged over the brown-faced portrayal in “Jonah from Tonga,” where a white man put on brown make-up and a curly-haired wig to play a juvenile delinquent Tongan).

In November, Bloys asked two of his diversity execs to meet with MANAA officers over Zoom (which happened in December). But the representatives didn’t even allow MANAA the opportunity to articulate their concerns over the casting in ‘Lotus,’ cutting off and dismissing their concerns, saying Mike White accomplished his goal, the mini-series is critically acclaimed, and it got a second season.

When MANAA wrote to Bloys complaining about their treatment, he ignored them and sent word through the same executives that he did not want to engage with MANAA.

This makes last year’s WarnerMedia Equity/Inclusion Report (which projected such a glowing picture of the corporation with statistics on how many of their creators, writers and directors are people of color, etc.) look like just a smoke screen to appear they were on the diversity bandwagon:

“Who gets to tell our stories is critical. We know that talent is distributed equally across the population, but opportunities have not always been.” (Cristy Haubegger, EVP, chief enterprise inclusion officer, Page 11)

“The opportunity for lasting change has never been greater. We need to listen so we are clearly aware of the unique inequities faced by different communities; we need to understand the data and historical context so we can unpack why these inequities exist in our industry; and we need to act with bold, intentional strategies to help to address inequities in our industry in a sustainable way” (MyKhanh Shelton, SVP, equity + inclusion, Page 14)

“I’m asking myself…How do we measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable?” (Shelton, Page 22)

“Unfortunately, HBO execs don’t feel they have to be,” says Aoki. “They resent anyone criticizing anything produced by HBO or Warner Bros. Discovery (the new corporation that owns it). How will situations improve if they don’t listen? We were not heard. We were insulted.”

Despite saying the cast would change with every new season of “White Lotus,” Mike White retained Jennifer Coolidge for the upcoming second season and there’s talk of bringing back many of the characters from the first mini-series.

HBO’s current series “Tokyo Vice” once again stars a white person in a place where the majority of the residents are Asian — the Japanese characters only play supporting roles — and it’s based on a memoir that came under heavy scrutiny long ago, as a documentarian felt author Jake Adelstein’s stories weren’t credible and many who knew him rejected a lot of his recollections of working at a Japanese newspaper.

How much has changed since MANAA’s meeting with HBO in 2014 over “Jonah from Tonga”?

“White Lotus” follows in a long line of Hollywood projects using Hawaii for its exotic backdrops but failing to adequately utilize the very people who live there to tell their own stories (e.g., CBS’s “Love Island,” NBC’s “Hawaii,” Fox’s “North Shore,” “Baywatch Hawaii” and movies “Aloha,” “The Descendants,” “50 First Dates,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Blue Crush” and “Pearl Harbor”).

In the history of television, no series taking place in Hawaii ever starred (first name in the credits) an API until CBS’ “NCIS: Hawaii,” which began less than a year ago.

Shortly after she left HBO as head of Talent Development in 2021, Kelly Edwards wrote in Daily Variety last July:

“We’re light-years behind on Asian representation. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t correlate the lack of Asians on-screen with the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community. When was the last time we saw an Asian lead who wasn’t doing martial arts?

“We know what we know. The field is not level. The question is: How do we fix it? We can start all of the programs we want, but we still need to address the fundamental problem that lies underneath. The system is biased…

“Diversity is still the last item discussed in a meeting… When [executives of color] advocate for a project from a BIPOC writer or an idea with a brown lead, it’s still questioned much more than if it had a white one…

“Here’s my challenge to everyone at the executive vice president level — mandate it. If you have the power to order another mildly entertaining series starring Oliver Hudson, you have the power to order a spectacular one starring John Cho. Better yet, for every script you bought this season, tell the showrunner you are making the lead a person of color. That will separate those executive producers who are with the program from those who just pretend to be… BIPOC culture is American culture. We’re not the side dish. We are the main course.”

Because of racist scenes involving Japanese-speaking women in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” in December, MANAA launched an anti-Oscar campaign asking Academy voters to not reward the film with Best Picture, Screenplay or Best Director Oscars. “Licorice Pizza” lost in all of its categories.

MANAA, the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, was founded in 1992. It led nationwide protests against the film “Rising Sun” in 1993 and challenged Sarah Silverman’s use of “Chinks” in her joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001. 

Between 1999 and 2019, as part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, MANAA met annually with the top four television networks pushing for more inclusion of APIs. Last year, MANAA got Jay Leno to apologize for two decades of making jokes about Asians eating dogs while on “The Tonight Show” and on “America’s Got Talent.”

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  1. I appreciate your article, and the issue of representation discussed. I am a filmmaker from Maui responsible for two features (GET A JOB, KULEANA) which feature an all-Hawaii cast and crew. that represent our people and the world we live. As low budget Indies, expectations were modest, but we were/are no doubt held back in so far as distribution/audience due these factors. The problems are many. If you’d wished to view them as positive examples that counter the whitewashed Hawaii titles mentioned, I’d be happy to share them with you 🙂