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Giving Diversity a Chance to Play the Lead

Scarlett Johansson plays the Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures in theaters March 31, 2017.

“Give Me A Chance and I’ll Change The World” — Beau Sia

One of my favorite spoken word poems of all time belongs to Beau Sia. In his piece “Give Me A Chance” he talks about the extreme difficulties of being an Asian performer in a country where far too often he is seen as an exotic commodity or is just plain invisible. Although the poem came out over 10 years ago, it is just as relevant today as it was back then, as his poem has been on my mind the past few days, what with the recent reveals of Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan bald monk in Doctor Strange and now Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. And in case people forgot, The U.S. adaptation of Death Note is now coming to Netflix with Nat Wolff playing Light Yagami. Yes, just like the other anime adaptation, they didn’t bother to change his last name (I can already hear the arguments that white people can have Japanese surnames too, how dare you be so narrow-minded Edward).

As an Asian American actor, I’ve been so thoroughly amused but also discouraged with these recent news stories. It’s amusing because it’s a reminder that white people can play anybody, but with non-whites, the same courtesy isn’t extended. It’s discouraging because it’s yet another unfortunate reminder that when it comes to the studio film level, it is extremely difficult to have people of color (especially Asians) play the main lead, the romantic love interest, the unassuming hero we all root for… indeed it’s as if there’s a glass ceiling that we keep bonking our heads against.

The exception of course is if it’s an Asian kung fu martial arts film or an “ethnic film,” and of course indies where the creators can take more risks. But if it’s a studio level film where it’s about a good ol’ American story (or a superhero film), actors of color are most always relegated to be the best friend, the two-liner, the background extra, but the lead? The one carrying the film? Oh lordy no.

Not all is hopeless however. In the TV world, we are seeing wonderful diversity growing with more and more TV shows having actors of color be the main leads. It’s not 100% perfect but I love seeing the progress made and I want to see more of that. With shows like Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, Into the Badlands, Black-ish, Scandal, and many others, the landscape in the TV/streaming world is slowly starting to reflect the world we live in.

May these ABC kids light the way for a better diverse future 😀

But when it comes to the studio film world, whenever there’s a chance that they have an Asian character who’s the main lead, it seems the studios go so far out of the way to cast a “known” white actor and use such elaborate and sometimes pretty logical reasoning (“the title of the Ancient One has been passed down to a white woman,” “she’s a cyborg and can change bodies whenever,” “there are actual mixed Asians who look completely white,” “There are no A-list Asian actors to make this profitable on name alone”, etc.) to attempt to calm the questioning and angry masses.

Now, mind you, sometimes it has nothing to do with the studios. Sometimes it’s factors like China not wanting a Chinese man play the villain ‘The Mandarin’ in Iron Man 3. Sometimes, the creators of the source material (such as Ghost in the Shell and Death Note, I mean how else are these films green-lit?) gave the studios their blessings to cast whoever they want and if it means casting a known white actor to make more money? So be it. These factors are very real and thus it is not entirely accurate to just yell out “THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIO SYSTEM IS RACIST, THEY’RE ALL RACIST, BURN THE HOUSE DOWN.” Sometimes we have to blame our own people for selling out to make some mad cash.

But sometimes we have to look at these examples of stories taking place in Asia and casting white actors to play Asian characters (while still keeping their Asian names or if reports are true, having VFX to make them look Asian) and call it out for exactly what it is: Bull. Shit.

It doesn’t happen to just Asians of course. With a nearly all white cast for films like Gods of Egypt and Exodus where the white leading actors played Egyptians (and even spray tanned themselves), these grumbling moments happen to other communities of color and it must be acknowledged and criticized as much as folks criticize when it happens to their own community.

The double side of this argument, of course, is during the few times when a non-white actor plays a traditionally white character (i.e., Idris Elba as Roland Deschain in The Dark Tower or Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four). This is where it gets really ugly because, the logic goes: if we celebrate these outside choices for these characters then we should not get angry when it happens to non-white characters played by white actors. To some extent, I agree with this. If there’s a film about the Salem Witch Trials and ALL the characters were of people of color, it would not be believable whatsoever (in my personal opinion) because in those colonial towns, the only people of color that existed were either slaves or not even present.

I support this because Idris Elba is The Man. That and Why Not.

But with the case of those two black actors I mentioned above, the ethnicity of the characters did not play such an important part in the story and so the choice in casting those actors were justified. And yes, I’m aware, the same could be said for the GitS and Death Note adaptations. Does ethnicity truly play a role in these films? I’ve heard passionate arguments from both sides so I ultimately leave it up to you guys on that matter. The point I do make, however, is that situations where a non-white actor plays a white character is so few and far between compared to white actors who play non-white characters.

It becomes unfortunate that when we bring this criticism up to light, the naysayers will always use the very FEW times that a non-traditional casting choice was made for an actor of color and from there, it always end in disastrous mess. There simply is no winning because yes, in an ideal world, anybody should be able to play any character they want as long as they do it justice. But we don’t live in that ideal world because let’s be frank, our world is riddled with prejudice, racism, bigotry, and a whole lot of narrow-minded thinking.

Diversity matters, not in the sense that it can be casually fulfilled by filling all your background extras with them. Diversity matters when they get to play the main leads, to be the ones to tell the story. It is also, most importantly, the world that we live in. Talent is out there and the chance just needs to be given that actors of color and women can easily do just as good of a job as our white actor/male counterparts.

In the meantime, what we can do as consumers is to support TV shows and films that works hard to not only be excellent but takes chances with diversity when it comes to their leads. Like The Expanse, a fantastic sci-fi show where recently, the creators went out of their way to find a 6 feet tall muscular Polynesian woman for the fan favorite character of Bobbie Draper. Because that’s how she was written in the books and lo and behold, they found just that with the actress Frankie Adams.

And in places long long ago in a galaxy far far away, Kelly Marie Tran is playing a main lead in Star Wars Episode VIII. An Asian American woman as a lead in a major sci-fi blockbuster? Whoa. So the future does have hope despite these setbacks.


You want to support diversity? Go support it wherever the chances are taken. Of course be smart and critical viewers and point out improvements where it can be made, but the more people watch shows with people of color and women as the main leads, the more it sends a message that this is the world we want to see on the big and small screens.

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