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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. 
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