Firstly, I should point out that contrary to what some might think, there were Asian nominees at this year’s Oscars: Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, composer A.R. Rahman, actor Hailee Steinfeld (who’s part Filipina), illustrator Shaun Tan (who won) and documentarian Ruby Yang. My hats off to all of them!
Yeah, I get it that the Oscars were pretty white-washed and there was no diversity and that sucks, blah, blah, blah. And my reaction to that is—so fucking what? Come on, this isn’t exactly breaking news, but more importantly, focusing on the Academy Awards as a target of our ire–while symbolic in many ways–doesn’t really do us any good. Why? Because the Oscars are largely reactionary and it’s always more effective to go directly to the problem rather than the reaction to the problem.
By that I mean the Academy Awards can only react to what Hollywood has produced in the previous year so if no “Oscar worthy” Asian or Asian American-themed films were on the radar during that period, then they are not going to be recognized. So if a Slumdog Millionaire or a Letters From Iwo Jima (which brought my fellow Offender Iris a screenplay nomination) comes along that fits the appropriate criteria, then yes, you’ll see more Asian faces in the Kodak Theater, but as for this past year—well, do we really want to advocate for the inclusion of M. Night Shyamalan as a Best Director nom for Last Airbender?
So let’s bypass the Oscars altogether and go straight to the “problem.” Where do films come from? On a very basic level, American movies come from either the Hollywood studio system or the independent world (i.e. everyone else who’s not a studio). The question of what’s problematic about Hollywood when it comes to Asian or Asian American representation is a topic that’s been discussed numerous times both here and on other sites (and I’m sure will continue to be touched on in the future) so I want to put that aside for today’s post.
Instead, I want to ask the question of what we, as a community, can do about this situation? And I don’t mean to imply that we should be interested in producing films with the sole purpose of winning Oscars or other awards, but rather about making or supporting “high-quality” movies that embraces the diversity of our experiences as Asians or Asian Americans. As I’ve written before, a film like Black Swan could have easily been an Asian American story with minimal changes, but it’s highly unlikely such a thing would have happened in our present reality.
Now, one of the big issues we face is still the lack of support from our own community. I wrote an extensive blog on this topic last year (click here) so I won’t repeat too much here, but much of what I said still holds true. Asian Americans may have some of the highest income levels and spending power, but the reality is we don’t spend it on our “own” the way African Americans do (which explains why Tyler Perry movies are such big hits).
That’s why it doesn’t really register with the powers-that-be when we make the argument that our community has a lot of disposable income which we spend on entertainment so therefore Hollywood should make more Asian American product. They’re not stupid—they already know we have a lot of money that can potentially line their pockets. But they also know that, at least when it comes to movies and TV, our consumption habits are pretty much the same as white people. So why should they cast Asian American actors, for example, when Asian American audiences don’t really support Asian American work and are just as content to pay to see Avatar or Iron Man 2 or any of the same stuff that white folk pay to see?
Which brings me to NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who produced the excellent documentary On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You’ve Never Heard Of. In this recent interview with the L.A. Times, Abdul-Jabbar was asked about the lack of Black nominees at this year’s Oscars and this was his response:
“The change is going to have to come from the black community. Black ownership would make it easier for films to get made about black Americans. People say that films about black Americans don’t sell well overseas, but I think that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the same with the Oscars. There has to be some product for the academy to assess before minorities can even be considered for awards. If we had black entrepreneurs in Hollywood, I think you’d see a lot more films that would cross every color line imaginable.”
So if we’re to apply this philosophy to our community, then it means that it’s really up to us to make the change that we want to see happen. Of course, there are Asian Americans in Hollywood who have no interest in the cause, but if we’re talking about Asian American “entrepreneurs” in a general sense, we have no shortage of them–there’s a good number of wealthy individuals among our ranks. But so far very few of our entrepreneurs (with the exception of folks like Cherry Sky Films) have stepped up to offer support in any real substantial way so we still face an uphill climb.
The most frustrating part of this is that I don’t think we fully understand how much power we have in this regard–right now, right here. With all the mad money in our community, we could’ve easily bought the film rights to The Last Airbender and made the movie the way we wanted instead of being in the reactionary position of protesting it after the fact when it’s too late.
Now, I do want to say that despite all these obstacles, I do feel very optimistic about the future. It’s actually more than optimism—I think this is a fucking exciting time to be an Asian American filmmaker. That’s partly why we started YOMYOMF and YOMYOMF Films—there’s definitely a creative energy in the air that we wanted to channel and be at the forefront of by creating, developing and producing our own projects. Is it naive to have this attitude? Well, perhaps as my fellow Offender Justin previous wrote, it is “retarded” to actually want to make Asian American projects and maybe we’ll crash and burn and fail miserably, but so fucking what?! In the end, I think it’s more about the journey than the final result, which you can’t predict anyway.
We need to stop being reactive and start being proactive. And this applies to everyone in the community—the artists who produce the work, the money people who finance (or could finance) the work and the audiences that consume and support that work. If you’re as tired as me of the same old dialogue about how Asian American representation sucks, let’s do something to change it–right now, right here. It’s the second decade of the 21st Century. I think it’s well past time that we took full ownership of our future.