Confronting Racism against Asians at the Academy Museum

In the midst of national racial tension, the Academy Museum opened to the public on 30 September 2021 with a headlong confrontation into race and diversity in the cinema, both showcasing an Asian American hero (Bruce Lee) and Oscar firsts for people of Asian descent while acknowledging a past history of yellow face.

While one can expect organizations focusing on racism and diversity to deal with issues of African Americans and Black people, often the issues of racism and diversity for people of Asian descent, Native Americans and Latino/Hispanics are ignored. At the press viewing, the presence of Miky Lee (Pie Kyung Lee), the vice chairwoman of CJ Group, beside museum trustee and Academy Award winner Tom Hanks and Academy Award-nominated actress Anna Kendrick as well as president and director of the museum Bill Kramer, was noteworthy, even if Lee wasn’t giving interviews.

Miky Lee sits for press photos along with Tom Hanks and Anna Kendrick during the press viewing of the Academy Museum (September 2021). Photo by Jana J. Monji.

Lee was elected the vice chair of the board of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in September of last year. She was announced as one of seven new museum trustees in 2019. Lee was one of the executive producers of Bong Joon Ho’s Chris Evan’s 2013 vehicle, “Snowpiercer,” the 2018 BAFTA Award Winning (Best Film Not in the English Language) “The Handmaiden,” and the history-making Oscar-winning 2019 “Parasite.” “Parasite” was the first South Korean film to win a Palme d’Or, the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the first South Korean film to received Oscars and the first non-English language film to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. 


Within the exhibitions, other Oscar firsts are celebrated. You can see Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar for the costume design (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992) or the Ang Lee’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000). Of course, there’s also Sidney Poitier’s Oscar for Best Actor (“Lillies of the Field,” 1963).

On a montage at the entry of the main exhibit, the three-floor multi-gallery (in the Spielberg Family Gallery, the Wanda Gallery and the Rolex Gallery)”Stories of Cinema,”  , you’ll see images of Bruce Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Bruce Lee’s blue suit (a tangzhuang jacket with buttons instead of frogs) from “Enter the Dragon” is on display as well as a script for “The Way of the Dragon” with drawings by Lee.

Clips from his films are also running on a loop.

No fan of Lee can think of him without remembering how he often lost out because of the racism in casting. Elsewhere, that topic is also tackled through a display of makeup. The heavy foundation actors wear, called pan-cake, is displayed including ones that supposedly portray Chinese and Light Egyptian. 

The display directly addresses the casting of White actors to play characters who are not White such as Donna Reed playing a Native American or Hugh Griffith as a sheik in “Ben Hur.” 

The layout for Katharine Hepburn’s makeup for the 1944 “Dragon Seed” is also there. The film mis about a peaceful Chinese village invaded by the Japanese before the rest of the world enters World War II. Yet the focus is on the Tan family which is played by non-East Asians. Besides Hepburn, the Tan family was played by Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon (nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar), Armenian American Akim Tamiroff, part-Turkish Turhan Bey and Hurd Hatfield. The only member of the extended Tan family to be played by someone of actual East Asian descent was the unnamed Fourth Cousin (hapa Chinese actor Clarence Lung). Despite the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, there were enough Chinese American actors around and they would later be called upon to play the Japanese enemy soldiers. 

On the fourth floor is a retrospective of the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. No photographs are allowed, but it is the most child-friendly exhibit although there are only a few things that children will be allowed to touch. The Miyazaki exhibit isn’t as child-friend as the Tokyo Ghibli Museum but it is a place of tranquility and whimsy. 

The current exhibits are:

  • “Stories of Cinema”
  • “Backdrop: An Invisible Art”
  • “The Oscars Experience”
  • “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection”
  • “Hayao Miyazaki”

Because this museum seeks to honor the 17 branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there will doubtlessly be more people of Asian descent, including American-born like Bruce Lee, who will be honored. This is a hopeful beginning. There’s a lot to see and you might not be able to cram it into one day. Expect to spend a leisurely few hours to view all the exhibits and clips. 

The Academy Museum is free to people aged 17 and younger from an endowment in honor of Sid Ganis (producer of “Akeelah and the Bee,” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and former president of AMPAS). The Oscar Experience is only available with a general admission ticket ($25-$15) and requires a special ticket (an additional $15) as do the programs and screenings.  In 2022, “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” will open at a yet unannounced date. 

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