I had been hesitant to write about the casting choices for the up coming movie “21.” For those that aren’t aware, the true story that the book was based on was about a group of Asian American students from MIT that went in to destroy the casinos at blackjack. In the Hollywood version, the group is predominantly Caucasian (even though a major detail in the book is the fact that a part of the strategy of the team was recruiting Asian students in order to use the pit bosses’ own racist notions against them i.e. Asians pulling $1000’s at a blackjack table doesn’t seem out of place at all and also if they are an Asian American woman there is no way they could be smart enough to be counting cards).
Sure, it is the kind of distinctly American nuance that I would love to see in a Hollywood movie — the same way I was pleased with the very natural way some of the best comedies these days are multicultural like “40 Year Old Virgin” and “The Office.”
But from all I can gather, “21” does not seem like it is about nuance.
Recently, I have noticed (mostly on facebook) a grumbling by Asian Americans about the choice to feature non-Asians in the film and only a couple token Asians. There is even a movement to try and boycott the film.
There is something I just can’t get behind in this movement. Call me a sell-out, but I just see the whole idea of boycotting it as naive and a little bit pointless. The only reason I am bringing it up now is because I saw that Guy Aoki put his hat into the ring on the issue. (He doesn’t call for a boycott and I agree with him that this is something people should be aware of).
But here is the bottom line: Hollywood doesn’t care about Asian America. They didn’t make the movie to give better roles to Asian Americans. They made the movie to make money. You make money by selling tickets. You sell movie tickets by giving the audience something cool to watch. Gambling is cool. Vegas is cool. The wish-fulfilment fantasy of beating the casinos is cool. Asian Americans (unfortunately in their eyes) are NOT cool.
What disheartens me the most about the call to boycott this film is that it is like trying to beat the casino. The house always wins. Why? Because the game is rigged in their favor. Yes, every now and then there are winners (Ang Lee, Justin Lin, Harold & Kumar), but for the most part the house ALWAYS wins.
How we as a community lose is that we risk creating the perception of Asian Americans as cry-babies. And when we have something to truly be outraged by we will be written off as once again knee-jerking some issue.
On top of that, even if every Asian American decided not to go see this film, the effect at the box office would be negligible — not even a blip. We just don’t have the buying power to pressure anyone. Also, by spreading emails and posting on message boards (and blogging about it), we are giving the movie free publicity!
At the heart of this whole issue, I ask this question: WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT HOLLYWOOD WOULD EVER GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU?
I spent many years getting upset at exactly these kinds of racist protrayals (or lack of positive portrayals) of Asian Americans in film. But after a while I realized that Hollywood isn’t going to change for the sake of being virtuous. I realized that my desires to have them re-align their priorities to fit mine was futile. Their goal is not even in opposition to my goals; they are on two completely different planes. I want stories with substance and nuance; they want box office numbers.
That is exactly the reason when it came to my own work that I went to Korea to get money to make “West 32nd.” Hollywood was not going to make my movie. I knew that. It took a Korean company to finance my work in order to get it done. If I kept knocking on Hollywood’s door and asked for their approval, I would never have gotten the film made (or the film would have been drastically changed to suit “American” tastes).
We need to start supporting our own and ignoring stuff like this. It makes me sad that there are some great Asian American films out there that have routinely gotten ignored. I don’t know what it would take to get people to direct half the energy they use to hate on towards being positive about the stuff that is already out there.
Here’s a mini-run-down: “American Zombie” is in theaters this week in LA. You can see both “Half-Life” by Jennifer Phang and “Munyurangabo” by Lee Isaac Chung in New York. This week “Baby” by Juwan Chung was playing in LA as part of a special screening with VC (which I am bummed I missed). There is plenty more you can get on DVD. And most importantly, don’t bootleg it!
Even within the film “21” there is a bone thrown that can be seen as a positive. My man Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) has a supporting role in the blackjack team. Yeah, it’s not much, but you know what? He’s beginning to blow up and getting more exposure in a high profile Hollywood film is a good thing. The more work he gets, the more he’ll be able to do projects like “American Pastime” and other Asian American work.
The best way to remedy all of this is to make being Asian American and telling Asian American stories cool. Let’s buy our own. Support our artists. Show the world that we can do cool shit. Once we focus on that, I guarantee Hollywood will follow.
It’s been a while since I had a solid rant up here. It feels good.