So much of the #OscarsSoWhite discussion has been about the absence of black actors. Chris Rock’s Oscar ceremony monologue talks about pervasive whiteness as the absence of blackness. There were movies from which black actors might have been nominated from such as “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” “Concussion” and “Beasts of No Nation,” yet as a recent John Oliver video “Hollywood Whitewashing: How Is This a Thing” shows, very often Asian and Asian American actors are whitewashed or yellowfaced out of the storyline and how roles for Latino actors are cast with non-Latinos.
When someone asked me if I was covering the Oscars or even going to watch the Oscars, I flippantly replied that I don’t know what Older White Men like and their taste in movies diverges from mine. What videos I’ve seen of the actual Oscars broadcast and most of the conversations about diversity has been a black is diversity message.
Chris Rock made that argument with his comments that “In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies…If you want black people every year at the Oscars, just have black categories like Best Black Friend…Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to…Hollywood is sorority racist…What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”
Rock then ended with: “You want diversity? We got diversity. Please welcome Emily Blunt and somebody whiter, Charlize Theron.”
The video on diversity featured only black actors in parodies of the nominated movies. Then, there was that awkward Asian joke (and child labor) Rock made about “Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.” Justin Chang, Chief Film Critic for Variety, tweeted, “Think my brain shut down for a few minutes. Did that appalling joke about Asian kids actually happen?”
If you’re asking for diversity, maybe one should step back and remember that not being white doesn’t mean one is black. I am not black and I want diversity, but just having black people nominated as actors or directors doesn’t make for diversity. I am Asian American. It’s not, as some people propose that the roles aren’t there for Asian ethnic actors. The roles are taken away, meaning not much has changed since Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Good Earth” was made into a 1937 movie by the same name. The book and the movie are about a Chinese peasant man and his Chinese wife in pre-World War I Mainland China, but the movie starred the Paul Muni (a Jewish man from what is now Lviv, Ukraine) and Luise Rainer (a Jewish woman from what is now Dusseldorf, Germany). Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress.
That would be matched by Linda Hunt’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing a Chinese-Australian man named Billy Kwan in the 1982 Australian movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
The first person with some Asian heritage to win an Oscar was Yul Brynner in 1956 (Best Actor for “The King and I”) The second was Ben Kingsley for the 1982 “Gandhi” and the 2003 “House of Sand and Fog.” Both men can and did pass for white. No actress of Asian descent has won Best Actress. Compare that two four Best Actor Oscars won by black actors: Sidney Poitier for “Lilies of the Field,” Denzel Washington in 2001 for “Training Day,” Jamie Foxx in 2004 for “Ray,” and Forest Whitaker in 2006 for “The Last King of Scotland.” Halle Berry became the first African American to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for “Monster’s Ball.”
Two Asian actors have won Best Supporting Oscars: Haing S. Ngor for the 1984 “The Killing Fields”and Miyoshi Umeki for the 1957 “Sayonara.” Compare that to four black men (Louis Gossett Jr. in 1982, Denzel Washington in 1989, Cuba Gooding Jr in 1996 and Morgan Freeman in 2004) and six black women (Hattie McDaniel in 1939, Whoopi Goldberg in 1990, Jennifer Hudson in 2006, Mo’Nique in 2009, Octavia Spencer in 2011 and Lupita Nyong’o in 2013).
Too often, opportunities for Asian actors are taken away like the 2010 “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” where Jake Gyllenhaal (who is of Swedish, English and Russian and Polish Jewish descent) played the titular character. The 2014 “Exodus: Gods and Kings” also didn’t use Asian actors for the main roles and this year’s “Gods of Egypt” is also similarly cast. Persia, now Iran, and Egypt are parts of West Asia with Egypt being a transcontinental country.
With East Asian characters, Hollywood still follows the formula they used in the 1944 “Dragon Seed” where Katherine Hepburn played a Chinese woman and the 1956 “The Conqueror” where John Wayne played Genghis Khan. When the 2010 action-fantasy film “The Last Airbender” was cast, the cast was white. Based on a Nickelodeon animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was about a supernatural world dominated by Asian and Native American (Eskimo) cultures.
Then there was that convoluted explanation for why Benedict Cumberbatch played a Star Trek character named Khan or the reasoning behind casting Emma Stone to play a Eurasian in “Aloha.” The casting of Cumberbatch in a role originated by a Latino (Ricardo Montalban) playing an Asian is almost as convoluted as the reasoning given by Salon writer Peter Birkenhead who suggested inserting black in both the movie “Hail, Caesar!” and “Spotlight.” Birkenhead asks us to imagine how a 13-year-old black kid might feel seeing only white people playing white people but what about 13-year-old Asian kids?
Even in stories based on true events, Asian Americans are sidelined or erased. In the 2008 “21” where the MIT Blackjack Team from the book “Bringing Down the House” was whitewashed even though the real main players were Asian American. As cheap consolation, two minor characters were East Asian American. In the 2012 “Emperor,” the hundreds Japanese-American Military Intelligence Servicemen who helped with translation and interpreting during the American Occupation were essentially written out of the story.
One might argue that while Asians make up the majority of the world population, they are a smaller minority than blacks in the U.S. (non-Latino Asians are only 4.7 percent of the U.S. population and non-Latino black are 12.2 percent), yet the Latino population is 16.3 percent. Latinos are the largest minority population in the U.S. The first Latin American-born actor to win an Oscar was José Ferrer in 1950 for “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Three Latin American-born actors have won Best Supporting Oscars: Anthony Quinn for the 1952 “Viva Zapata!” and for the 1956 “Lust for Life.” Benicio del Toro won in 2000 for “Traffic.” Why no outcry for Del Toro’s not being nominated for “Sicario”?
Only two Latinas have won acting Oscars, both for Best Supporting Actress: Rita Moreno for the 1961 “West Side Story” and Mercedes Ruehl for the 1991 “The Fisher King.” You could include the Mexican-born Lupita Nyong’o here for her 2013 Oscar (“12 Years a Slave”). John Oliver’s piece notes that even when stories are told about Latin America, typically, Latino actors are not being cast (e.g. Jeremy Irons in “The House of the Spirits” as Esteban Trueba)
I can see why the controversies behind “Straight Outta Compton” (misogyny) and “Concussion” (damage caused by football and the possible implications it has for the American culture), might have scared away voting audiences. Likewise “Beast of No Nation” also takes on a touchy subject, as does the “Embrace of the Serpent.” Perhaps the vote was divided. I don’t know.
While in the context of diversity, people have mentioned last year’s snub: That Ava DuVernay wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Yet Alejandro González Iñárritu, who had won in 2014 for “Birdman” represented diversity in Hollywood this year. The first Latin American-born director to win an Oscar was Alfonso Cuarón in 2013 for “Gravity.”
The one-note focus on diversity has taken away the spotlight on where there have been progress. The first Asian to win an Oscar for best director is Ang Lee for the 2005 “Brokeback Mountain” and the 2012 “Life of Pi.” Lee won the award in the city of the Chinese massacre of 1871. This year, a man also known as El Negro (“The Black One”), who was born in Mexico won back-to-back Oscars for directing and he won it in the city that was once part of Mexico that became part of the U.S. after a war, the city where before the Watts Riots (1965), there was the Zoot Suit Riots (1943).