Asian Invisibility in Hollywood

September 3, 2017

The lack of Asian film stars in Hollywood has become overwhelmingly obvious. If you ask someone to list all the Asian movie stars they know, the answer will most likely be Jackie Chan and that would be the entire list. But if you ask for the white movies stars they know, they could probably go on for hours. So how come there are so few Asian actors in films? Why aren’t there more Asians celebrities?


About two months ago, I watched the live action version of Ghost in The Shell in theater and it was, for the most part, alright. But what bothered me was that my favorite character, Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese character, was played by Scarlett Johansson, a white actress. In fact, there were very few Asian actors in the movie, and they played minor, forgettable roles.


Despite the fact that the film was based on a Japanese manga, none of the lead roles in the movie were played by Asian people. As a reader of the original Japanese manga, I knew well enough that the every character in the story was meant to be Japanese. So I wondered why the cast of the movie wasn’t predominantly Asian. After a little bit of research, I found out that this practice of starring white actors as Asian characters has been quite common in Hollywood and has been widely referred to as whitewashing. DragonBall Evolution from 2009, Avatar: the Last Airbender from 2010, and Aloha from 2015 are just some of the examples whitewashing in film from recent memory.


The argument for hiring white actors over their Asian counterparts seems to be universal among filmmakers in the industry: movies with white actors as the main character sell better. This could be a plausible explanation for the lack of Asians in the film industry.  However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There have been several cases where films starring white actors as Asian characters yielded less than impressive box office and ratings. The fact that many of these white actors are already well established might also contribute to filmmakers’ hiring decision. So perhaps producers hire white actors in the hopes of that their name could carry the film. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson, a very well known actress in Hollywood, did not help the box office in the slightest. As a matter of fact, Ghost in the Shell was one of the most notable box office flops of 2017 with only 168 million dollars. Just to put this number into perspective, the Fate of the Furious, a film that came in theater less than a month ago, has achieved a box office of 1.193 billion dollars,  more than seven times the box office of the Ghost in the Shell and quadrupling its own production budget.


Another whitewashing film featuring Emma Stone as a half-Chinese Hawaiian girl, Aloha, had an even worse box office and ratings than Ghost in the Shell with a measly box office of 21 million dollars. This number is tragically low considering the production budget of this film is 37 million. So, despite what filmmakers claim, replacing Asian actors with white actors doesn’t yield higher box office earnings. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.  A study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that films with a more diverse cast results in better box office numbers than films with a less diverse cast.  Guardians of the Galaxy and the Fast and the Furious franchise are some examples films with a diverse cast that did extremely well at the box office.


With so many examples and data against the notion that films with white actors sell better, it’s hard to believe that the reason for not hiring Asian actors isn’t something intrinsically racist. Racist casting policies continue to hurt the presence of Asian actors in the film industry. What’s worse is that the lack of successful Asian actors in Hollywood further discourages aspiring actors to even enter the industry. For the past 89 years, Asian actors have earned 1 percent of Oscar nominations and the number of nominations for East Asian actors is exactly zero. This number is especially disheartening due to the fact that East Asians actors have not yet been nominated once in Oscar’s 89-year history, let alone win it.


The filmmakers need to understand that a diverse cast featuring minority actors can actually help the movie tremendously, one of the main reasons that the Fast and the Furious franchise has been so successful is that they achieve record breaking box office numbers overseas. Only 6 American films have ever achieved a box office outside of North America of over 1 billion and two of those films were from the Fast and the Furious franchise. Similar success has also been found on the small screen. Fresh Off the Boat, a sitcom with almost an exclusively Asian cast, have done especially well among minority viewers. According to Nielson Research, Asians make up 14.5 percent of the viewership of Fresh Off the Boat. Given the fact that Asians Americans only make up 5.8 percent of the US population, the number of Asian Americans watching the show is quite high. Although the success of Fresh Off the Boat is achieved on televisions, it isn’t hard to imagine that similar success could be replicated in the movie theater. If filmmakers want to create success films with impressive box office numbers, it is imperative that they realize the importance of appealing to minority demographics. Minority viewers want to see characters that they can connect and resonate with and casting white actors as Asian characters doesn’t do that.






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