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There are No Asian American Movie Stars

Last week, North Korean hackers allegedly broke into the personal files of Sony Pictures execs as retaliation for the studio producing the James Franco and Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, which is about a CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. Normally, we’d be all over the nerd-friendly news about, say, Spider-Man coming home to Marvel Studios, but that’s been covered plenty of times on the web. Besides, we already told the world the best way to mashup Spidey and the MCU.

The thing to emerge out of the Sony leak that really bugged me was the assertion by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin that “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”

Sorkin with Olivia Munn, who is definitely not an Asian American movie star.

The context of Sorkin’s statement was in regards to a heated exchange between the writer and the studio over developing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys. The book is about corruption on Wall Street and is centered around the exploits of Bradley Katsuyama, the financial services exec who tries to counter the rise of high-frequency trading by founding his own investors exchange.

In an email to Sony Pictures CEO Amy Pascal, Sorkin laments the fact that writing a script from Lewis’ book would present several problems, one of which is that the protagonist of the flick would be, god forbid, Asian American1. (This despite the fact that the last time a non-fiction book about Asian Americans was turned into a movie, they made it about white folk instead).

But it got me thinking. Is Sorkin right? Are there no Asian American movie stars? And what makes someone a movie star anyway? After about five minutes of research on the internet, I came up with the following, ranked by their lifetime domestic box office gross according to Box Office Mojo.

Keanu Reeves

Lifetime box office gross: $1.9 billion ($2.9 billion when adjusted for inflation)

People love to hate on Keanu. I am not one of those people. Sure his acting can be wooden, and he’s done some questionable roles in the past because he “passes” as white, but two things are undeniable. He’s still Asian American — being of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent — and he is, by all quantitative and qualitative accounts, a movie star. Say what you will about his acting or his down-ness, but his record is proof that Sorkin’s assertion about Asian American movie stars is fundamentally untrue.

To me, it’s actually surprising that more Asian Americans don’t “claim” Keanu as one of our own. (I wonder if this makes him sad?) Is it because he’s never explicitly “played Asian” in his movies (Little Buddha and 47 Ronin, notwithstanding)? Personally, I always just assumed any character Reeves portrays — from Theodore Logan to Johnny Utah to Neo — was hapa unless told otherwise, anyway.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Lifetime box office gross: $1.6 billion ($1.8 billion when adjusted for inflation)

If we broaden out to the larger AAPI community, one of the most bankable stars in the world is Dwayne Johnson. There is actually scientific evidence that if you add The Rock to your movie, he will breathe new life into your stale ass franchise. Just look at what he did for G.I. Joe and Fast and the Furious. Not to mention the fact that his is the only upcoming DC movie I have any hope for. (If only they had cast Jason Momoa as Captain Marvel, though).

Now, granted, The Rock — who’s mother is Samoan — probably isn’t the number one choice to play a Wall Street exec who specializes in high frequency trading, but that wasn’t necessarily Sorkin’s problem, was it? If you believe an Asian American or Pacific Islander can’t top line a successful movie, then you must also believe that none of The Rock’s movies have been successful. Maybe Aaron Sorkin should just know his role and shut his mouth.

If ya smell what The Rock is cookin’.

Lucy Liu

Lifetime box office gross: $895 million ($1.1 billion when adjusted for inflation)

Next on the list is the first Asian American woman with the box office clout to be considered an A-list movie star. Like Keanu, Liu has had a complicated relationship with the Asian American community. Also like Keanu, a lot of that has to do with the types of roles Liu has played on the big screen. From Kill Bill to The Man with the Iron Fists, she hasn’t shied away from problematic Asian female stereotypes. At the same time, though, she is one of the most visible Asian American stars on any screen. For what it’s worth, what she’s doing as Watson on CBS’ Sherlock Holmes reimagining Elementary is some of the most nuanced work she’s done in years.

And if you need further proof that Lucy Liu is a pop cultural phenomenon, her name’s been immortalized in songs by both Outkast and Beyoncé!

Honorable Mentions: John Cho and Sung Kang
The stars of Better Luck Tomorrow

Lifetime box office gross: $1.6 billion (Cho)
Lifetime box office gross
$774 million (Kang)

Back in 2003, a little film called Better Luck Tomorrow rocketed a bunch of Asian Americans into the top tier of blockbuster filmmaking. Along with star Parry Shen and director Justin Lin, John Cho and Sung Kang became household names in households that weren’t Asian American. Kang and Lin have been able to parlay their success into steering the Fast and Furious franchise into billion-dollar territory — something unfathomable after the first few films in the series. Meanwhile, Cho top-lined the cult-favorite Harold and Kumar trilogy with Kal Penn, making them the Asian American Cheech and Chong for the 21st century, and is a major player in his own billion-dollar movies, the rebooted Star Trek franchise.

But what do I know? If Aaron Sorkin says there are no Asian movie stars, then there are no Asian movie stars. Or maybe, to paraphrase Chris Rock, Hollywood is just a racist white industry.

You guys decide while I go pop in my Fast Five blu-ray and call it a day.

  1. Just so we’re clear, Bradley Katsuyama is actually Canadian, but the point remains that casting of the movie would require hiring an actor who’d likely be Asian American. Also, it has been pointed out that Sorkin said there were no Asian — not Asian American — movie stars, but I’m pretty sure the context is about the lack of Asian Americans. Because saying there are no movie stars in Asia is an even more ignorant assertion.  
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