Asian Americans Should be Movie Stars: an Update

So a few days ago, I wrote a thing. Maybe you’ve seen it. Ever since that post has been passed around, I’ve been taken to task about the stars I included (or didn’t include) on the list and whether or not I was basically proving Sorkin’s point by coming up with only three names.

On the first point, the names I included were not meant to be my casting suggestions for the role of Brad Katsuyama in a hypothetical Flash Boys movie. Instead, I was more concerned with Sorkin’s assertion that Asian movie stars didn’t exist. So I went to Box Office Mojo, and scanned their list of actors’ all-time domestic grosses and looked for the ones who were (North) American of Asian descent — whether or not you think hapas or Pacific Islanders should’ve been appropriately considered criteria is another matter1.

I also left out television stars because the focus of the post (and Sorkin’s email) was about the lack of Asian movie stars. That said, you’d think employing folks like Olivia Munn and Dev Patel on a show like The Newsroom should be proof enough that Asian Americans (or in Patel’s case, Asian Brits) can be movie stars in their own right, but I digress.

Doing this exercise, the three names I listed were all in the top 300 in box office earnings — Keanu (#73), Rock (#115), Liu (#291). Cho and Kang don’t have Box Office Mojo indices, probably because they haven’t been solo leads, but their ensemble films (mainly Trek and Fast & Furious) have still grossed high enough numbers to be considered stars.

So if your favorite didn’t make the list2, it’s not because I don’t think they’re talented or Asian enough, it was because they haven’t been in billion-dollar grossing movies.

Sorry Kal Penn. If only Superman Returns didn’t suck.

Secondly, I’ve seen folks say that I’m basically proving Sorkin’s point by only finding three (or so) Asian folks in a sea of Hollywood stars. Well, that’s really the point of the whole exercise, isn’t it? It’s the vicious circular logic of Hollywood that’s really the problem. More often than not, Asian American actors aren’t given an opportunity to lead a tent pole  movie (or any movie, really). But then those same execs who won’t give an AAPI actor a chance turn around and say there aren’t any AAPIs who are stars. Asian Americans shouldn’t have to “go back to Asia” to become stars.

When I would speak at colleges — PS, I’m totally available to speak at colleges — I used to do this bit about the movie 21 and how the actual guy getting whitewashed, Jeff Ma, was totally okay with a white dude playing him.

For me it wasn’t a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like “John Cho” or “Chow Yun-Fat” or “Jackie Chan…” I really wasn’t and I mean if I asked you who you would want to play you in a movie, you wouldn’t be thinking “I want the most similar person,” but you would be thinking ”Who’s cool?” or who do you think would personify your personality or who is a good actor or who is talented, so as much as I think people like to look at it at face value like that, the reality is if you ask anyone who they wanted to play you, it wouldn’t necessarily be “Who’s the most ethnically tied to me?”

Uncanny, isn’t it?

First off, never mind the fact that Asian and Asian American actors are getting conflated here, but why the hell would Jackie Chan or Chow Yun-Fat play you in a movie, dude? Secondly, Ma is only echoing what so many studio execs already think. Implicit in his statement is that Asian American actors just aren’t cool enough. That’s the attitude that permeates Hollywood.

If anything, the takeaway of the original post is that AAPI actors shouldn’t be invisible. Folks in power don’t think they exist because they’re just not looking.

Hollywood is supposed to be colorblind because all they see is green, right? Well, the names I listed have generated nearly $7 billion in box office combined, and there are countless more out there who can be just as impactful. They just need the opportunity is all.

I mean, Jim Sturgess3 can’t star in everything.

  1. I’ve also been told that I shouldn’t have included Keanu or Rocky because they’re mixed or — in The Rock’s case — because Pacific Islanders shouldn’t be lumped in with Asian Americans. While I’ll concede the point that Pacific Islanders are a separate and unique identity, I think it’s problematic to assert mixed race folks “don’t count,” especially if they self-identify as such (and by all reports, Keanu does).  About The Rock’s inclusion, I was merely thinking in terms of the broader AAPI social construct. But I want to reiterate that I am by no means trying to erase anyone’s identity.    
  2. One name I did unwittingly omit: Ken Jeong. Though I have complicated feelings about his roles — you try being a high school teacher named Mr. Chow during the reign of The Hangover movies — I can’t deny, from a strictly numbers point of view, the guy’s movies have made serious bank, $1.9 billion in all, which actually puts him just above Keanu (again, he probably  isn’t indexed on Box Office Mojo because he’s always been in supporting roles).  
  3. BTW, Sturgess’ all time box office? Just under $232 million. But you know, he’s a movie star. 

12 thoughts on “Asian Americans Should be Movie Stars: an Update

  1. Jeff Ma acted like a tool for saying what he did. It’s because of Asians like him that Asians are completely tread upon as a minority. Everyone knows that they can walk all over us and we’ll be “honored” for the privilege. Who knows? Maybe he was even “honored” that a handsome White guy would play him in a movie.

    But Keith, your article did kind of prove Sorkin’s point because in order to find an “Asian American movie star,” you had to come up with 2 actors who don’t like “Asian” (as defined from an American perspective) at all, and one Asian American woman. Brad Katsuyama is an Asian American man. This matters. If Hollywood is averse to casting Asians in positive roles, it’s especially averse to casting Asian men in positive roles. Remember that Lucy Liu was even included as a Charlie’s Angel way back when. An Asian woman has been accepted as an archetypal all-American symbol. Can you say the same for an Asian man?

    The response to Sorkin should not have been to desperately try to claim the likes of Keanu Reeves as Asian America. No, the instead should’ve been, “There aren’t any Asian American movie stars? Yeah, that’s right. But there should be.” And then you should’ve listed all the talented AsAm actors who could play Brad Katsuyama.

  2. Fyi – Reggie Lee (real name Reggie Valdez – Filipino American) on Grimm is an actor of note. He’s on a popular show and can hold his own. As for the Rock being considered black, would be denying that he’s half Samoan and raised in Hawaii of which local people here are very proud of. I find it sad that so many in the American film industry feel only a film star can play the main character. Aloha

  3. This is kind of a scary problem for diversity, and the truth is, Hollywood still white-washes EVERYTHING. I’m glad that you’re able to point this out. Even if we don’t have all the answers, being vocal is at least something.

  4. With the movie 21, they actually hired a dialect coach to teach Jim Sturgess to speak like an American, when they could have had easily cast an actual American of Asian descent. Shows you just how much the studios go out of their way to avoid casting Asian Americans.

    1. > With the movie 21, they actually hired a dialect coach to teach Jim Sturgess to speak like an American,

      If they wanted a white guy with a US accent, the easiest thing to do would be to hire a white American. They also hired Renee Zellweger (a Texan) to play Bridget Jones and gave her dialect coaching to speak with a British accent, rather than hiring a British actress. Don’t these cases prove that it *is* about star power and not race?

      In the case of 21, the *book* that it was based on presented a highly fictionalized version of the events; the character was already whitewashed in the book. Did the screenwriters even know at the time that the real guy was Asian?

  5. its not the 40s, “movie stars” dont sell tickets folks, case in point name any person you think fit in that mold and look at their box office. a recognizable name is all that movie stardom gives you. look at jake gillenhall, robert downey jr and chris evans non super hero gigs, the list goes on. would you consider the cast of joy luck club, better luck tomorrow and other asian american films “movie stars” perhaps not but for me any actor that does movies consistantly for years, is a name and talented is a star: ming na, tzu ma, will yun lee, kelly hu, i can go on

  6. jeff ma needs therapy and some asian friends. he’s been brainwashed by the white man obviously. i WORSHIP my asian brothers but i would never say “you know who should play me, a black-indian? tony leung cause he’s cool and i want to be cool” lol. mos deff or z-tip plan and simple lol

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