Saturday, February 26, 2005

And the Oscar Goes To....

Okay, this post doesn't have anything to do with my trip to Spain. But this entry is more timely so I thought I'd go ahead and post it now.

While channel surfing in my room in Spain, I came across this report from BBC World and watched with interest. According to the article, in the seventy-seven-year history of the Academy Awards, some 300 or so nominations have been handed out, but only 13 or 14 of them went to black people. Obviously, the overwhelming number of those nominations went to white people. When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won "Best Actor" awards in 2002 -- signaling the first time in history both "best" awards when to black actors, and the first time ever the award went to a black woman -- the media proclaimed a shift in attitudes toward recognition of black Hollywood. The BBC article, like many others, notes that "while some think this year’s nominations may finally reflect a more diverse Hollywood, not everyone is convinced."

I don't know about the BBC World definition of "diverse," but recognizing black achievement at the Oscars shouldn't earn Hollywood the accolade of fully "diverse" just yet. No disrespect toward any of the truly talented black performers, filmmakers, and other behind-the-scenes black talent in Hollywood, who in fact truly deserve the awards for which they are nominated and for which they receive their awards, but America, before proclaiming any of its prominent institutions truly "diverse" in terms of adequate representation of minorities, needs to start looking beyond black and white.

In its 77-year history, only a small handful of Asian Americans have won Oscar awards. Among them are Miyoshi Umeki (Best Supporting Actress, Sayonara, 1957) and Haing S. Ngor (Best Supporting Actor, The Killing Fields, 1984). In addition, James Wong Howe, nominated multiple times, won for best cinematographer in both 1955 (The Rose Tattoo) and in 1963 (Hud). Where's the cry for "diversity" with respect to Asian-American Hollywood? Black actors/filmmakers/Hollywood types (rightfully) applaud the greater representation of black talent at the awards; why does no one notice that diversity in the United States encompasses so much more?

No Asian actor has ever won a "Best Actor" award (male or female) in the history of the Oscars. Ain't no diversity if the Asian population in this country isn't represented.

"But," you protest, "there aren't that many Asian actors out there! How do expect them to win if they barely exist?"

If you actually said that, then you've actually pinpointed the problem with Hollywood: In the same way that black actors were historically marginalized in early Hollywood, Asian actors are in the same boat now. Where blacks used to be consistently relegated to acting roles such as slaves or waiters/busboys, Asian actors are stuck in roles that involve their mastery of the martial arts. (Infuriatingly often, by the way, even this stereotype is being taken away from Asians, because lately white people have been able to better the ancient Eastern masters of the crafts. Witness The Last Samurai -- whose title character appears to be a white guy who kicks Asian ass at an ancient Asian craft.) Either that, or they run Chinese restaurants in some broken English faux-Eastern accent. (See my previous brief post about this phenomenon.)

Asians seldom take lead roles which aren't race-specific. I mean, obviously if you're casting a movie about the ancient kings of Europe, you can't cast an Asian in the role of King Phillip II. But where the race of the main characters isn't terribly important to the plot, and could be filled by anyone of any race or ethnicity, Asian actors are almost never tapped to fill the roles. In fact, the very first movie to feature Asian characters as title characters was Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, starring John Cho and Kal Penn. (Kal Penn is of Asian Indian extraction; his name birth name of Kalpen Modi was Anglicized, probably at the insistence of Hollywood types.) Even Chinatown, a movie whose title suggests an Asian flair or theme, doesn't contain almost any Asians at all in speaking roles.

True, there have been blips on the Hollywood radar as resepcts Asian actors and Asian-themed movies. In 1993, The Joy Luck Club hit the screen with a majority Asian cast. Then, in 2002, we got Better Luck Tomorrow. Aside from those two, though, Asian Americans weren't well represented in mainstream American cinema. Worse, even when Asian characters were cast in Hollywood history, they were played by white guys in yellowface, complete with buck teeth and faux accents. See, for example, Mickey Rooney's shameful performance as "Mr. Yunioshi," Holly Golightly's cranky and irritable upstairs neighbor, in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's ("Miss Go-Right-ree! I going to cow poreess!"). Even in Sayonara, a man named "Nakamura," a kabuki dancer, is played by none other than Richardo Montalban -- he of Fantasy Island fame, and clearly someone who is not of Asian descent! As it currently stands, it seems to me that when I want to see Asians or Asian-Americans in the movies, I have to look to more "independent" releases (such as Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, Hero (which is a Chinese movie that somehow has Quentin Tarantino's name prominently attached to it, even though Tarantino really had absolutely no hand in its creation) and House of Flying Daggers. I have to frequent web sites like this one.

Of course, this subject is closer to my heart because I'm Asian-American. I haven't done the research, so I don't know how many Hispanic/Latino actors and actresses out there have been represented at the Awards, nor how many truly Hispanic-themed movies have hit it big as Hollywood blockbusters. Hollywood's been a white man's world for a long time. The same goes for any identifiable minority group in the United States who deserves recognition and notice as an integral and important part of this tapestry of the country. Only when more of us are better and more fully represented can we truly proclaim that Hollywood has succeeded in its recognition of the "diversity" of the industry.

But in the end, the problem is the same. Hollywood was and is busy patting itself on the back in the name of "diversity" for finally giving some black actors the recognition they deserve. Measuring themselves by a black-versus-white yardstick, sure, progress has been made. But there's got to be a more representative yardstick out there that needs to be used to recalibrate the assessments.

12 comments:

ericorbit said...

It's funny that you write about this today, as I was mulling over this very subject last night. I went to see "Sideways" (great movie, btw), and in addition to my feelings that Paul Giamatti was robbed when he didn't get nominated for an Oscar, I feel the same way about Sandra Oh, who played Stephanie. Her performance was every bit as awesome as Virigina Madsen and Thomas Haden Church's.

Matthew said...

But... ya'll got that Jackie Chan feller. He's real funny!

j/k

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Dennis. While I don't want to pit one minority against another (we all need to stick together), it does frustrate me that there is such a focus made on the equality of African-Americans, somewhat to the detriment of other ethnic minorities. It's probably a result of societal guilt over slavery, or some such thing.

At any rate, it would be great to have more prominent roles for Asian-American actors, as well as American-Indian, etc.

Good post!

Doshi said...

Dennis,

Kal Penn is playing Stanford in the upcoming Superman movie. I think Harold and Kumar's success will change things a bit.

But I totally agree. If you look at TV (specifically ER), it took them six seasons to feature an asian (Ming Na) as a main character and even longer before they showed an Indian asian (Parminder Nagra). This despite the fact that asians are heavily overrepresented in medicine.

Great post.

-Doshi
P.S. I think what happened with Hero is that Tarentino wanted to bring the movie to the U.S., but the distributors agreed to do it only if his name was attached to all the advertising. The Chinese production folks agreed.

Kiyoshi Martinez said...

I agree for the most part, but you have to remember that Hollywood and its industry is a business and they cater to what people will buy into. So, its goes beyond just what the studios do, it also is reflective of the ticket holders.

Your point is interesting about Asian-American under representation, but I think that you could say that about pretty much any minority group.

Dennis! said...

Thanks for your comments.

Eric: I haven't seen Sideways yet (still planning to!) but I've been a fan of Sandra Oh for a long time. Too bad she generally doesn't do that much where she's a standout star.

Matt: Absolutely. There ought to be a way to provide the viewing audiences with more choices reflecting a much broader swath of Americana.

Doshi: I don't even know who the Stanford character is in the Superman series. Guess I'm out of it. :P But seriously, I remember making a point to go see H&K in the theaters after it came out because I wanted to be sure the receipts reflected that there is a market for Asian leads in Hollywood movies (even though I was pretty sure H&K would be a pretty stupid movie) (but then it turns out I enjoyed it).

Kiyoshi: You're right, Hollywood is a market. But at some point, we hit the chicken-and-egg question: Do studios decide not cast Asians because there's no audience for them, or is there no audience for Asian actors because the studios don't cast them? Like it or not, Hollywood exerts a powerful influence in our society over what we collectively deem "attractive" and "attention-getting." Maybe -- just maybe -- Hollywood's failure to include many Asians in mainstream productions has helped indoctrinate us as a country to the belief that the "beautiful people" -- those that can headline a movie -- are, by definition, white. Just a thought.

PS: I have to comment that your name rocks. Cross-cultural identity: the best of multiple worlds.

melyssa said...

okay i hate to be rude, but this is a no brainer. people are going to better relate to those who are like them. for years, black/african americans have protested (loudly and silently) while being beaten, attacked by dogs, sprayed by power fire hoses, etc. to get the little recognition we are finally now getting. and it's still not enough. it will never be enough until it's equal with respect to african americans.

if asian americans, native americans or any other minority group wish to get more exposure and recognition. follow the example of the great african americans. stand up and be seen and heard! yes it's hard work, but america is not going to be fair and just give it to you.

recognition of african americans has little to do with slavery. african americans have done good work and white america has finally decided to give up a little recognition. but it's not needed in order for african americans to continue to do good work. please don't minimize the success of all african americans by saying it's only been achieved because of guilt by slavery. that is insulting! african americans are a talented people!

don't misinterprete me. i know there are other people out there who are not being acknowledged besides african americans. but don't blame african americans for something that white america is doing to you. be agressive and do something other than place blame on another group.

Dennis! said...

Melyssa: I agree that Asian-Americans need to be more vocal if we want more equality in this country. I'm concerned, though, about where you draw the inference that anyone is "blaming" African-Americans for the underrepresentation of other minority groups in Hollywood (or anywhere else). I don't read my post, or any of the comments after it, to say that African-Americans should be "blamed" for the dearth of Asians in cinema or television.

I do, however, take some issue with Hollywood for calling itself "diverse" when "diverse" only means opening the door for more African-Americans. I'm not blaming black people, I'm pointing out that the word "diverse" means more than just responding to the more vocal minority group. "Diverse" should mean truly representing larger portions of non-white population, whether or not they're the ones who are most likely to "stand up and be seen and heard." But still, I do agree that being vocal and out there is one way to go about calling attention to the situation.

Put it this way: If Party A is attended by 20 white people and 5 black people, and Party B is attended by 10 white people, 8 black people, 4 Latinos, and 3 Asians, which party is more "diverse"? Hollywood seems to think Party A is sufficient diverse for its purposes; I argue that it's not.

Ryan Dunn said...

Dennis!, I completely agree. I write about the ethnic diversity of The City where I live, San Francisco, and residents of other more African-American cities like Houston and Chicago scoff. It's obvious that it takes more than black people to make a city or an awards show ethnically diverse, and smart Hollywood producers would be wise to take up your plight. The time to pat ourselves on the back for achieving complete diversity has not arrived yet.

melyssa said...

dennis, thanks for dumbing it down for me! :-) honestly, i got and get what you're saying. my comment was more directed towards to commenter who suggested that perhaps the only reason african americans achieved recognition was because of a societal guilt over slavery.

while that may partially be true, the real truth of the matter is african americans have done great work in all areas (not just acting) that they have received some, little or no recognition for.

put it this way: denzel and halle might have gotten an oscar because white america thought it was time, but that still doesn't take away from the fact that they both did some damn good work in those films.

Matthew said...

Melyssa,

I find it interesting that my comment of "It's probably a result of societal guilt over slavery, or some such thing." has now become "...perhaps the only reason african americans achieved recognition was because of a societal guilt over slavery." Maybe I'm missing something, but that's quite a translation.

I was merely positing a possible reason for what Dennis was pointing out, but it is by no means the only reason, and I don't think it was originally stated as such. Slavery was a huge black mark on our country's history, and many white people today (including President Bush) say as much. No other ethnic minority here in this nation's history shares that unfortunate legacy, so I think it does provide some guilt. It's the same reason that much of Germany is so touchy about the subject of eugenics. They've got a shameful (Nazi) history which causes many Germans a great deal of guilt, still, to this day.

I don't really want to get into an argument here, but I'm just a little agitated that my words have been taken, slightly twisted, and then singled-out and literally applied in such a scornful manner.

Yes, many African-Americans have worked their asses off to achieve social justice in this country, but they also did it alongside Euro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, etc. And, if I may take something you've said, slightly twist it, and apply it literally, it has definitely not been the case that African-Americans have been the only ethnic minorities to work hard for positive change.

Many Asian-Americans have struggled - and still do struggle - to achieve equality, and so for you to say "... if asian americans, native americans or any other minority group wish to get more exposure and recognition. follow the example of the great african americans," is simply wrong.

Besides, like I said in my original comment, "we all need to stick together". It shouldn't be just blacks working to help blacks, and Asians working to help Asians, and whites working to help whites. It should be all of us working to help all of us.

Take care.

melyssa said...

ok, since i've been accused and convicted of isolating your words,
i'll move forward with it so the accusation can actually be true.

"scornful" - this is your perception, not mine.

you say i added "only" to your words (at least i think that's what
you're saying but i'm not sure because according to you i have
misinterpreted your entire post). however, i find it funny that i was
wrong for doing so, but you turn around and do the same thing. so,
does that make the situation better or worse? do two wrongs make a
right?

i disagree with your comment about sticking together. but that's my
opinion, which i'm entitled to and yes you're entitled to yours as
well.

this utopian society you'd like to see happen where everyone helps
everyone is a nice idea. i'd like to see it happen as well, but i
highly doubt it ever will actually happen during my lifetime.

i don't understand how my example of encouraging minority groups to
stand up and be heard is wrong, but whatever. again, you're entitled to your own opinion. and by the way, african americans are still struggling AND fighting as well. but i wouldn't expect you to notice. the academy giving out a few trophies doesn't make it all better.

i hate to take up anymore room on dennis!'s blog. and since it appears as thought you'd like to continue debating the issue, feel free to send me an email. i don't consider it arguing, i consider it an exchange of ideas/opinions. sorry if you feel attacked or treated with scorn by some random and unknown woman's comments from god knows where, but you really shouldn't take it that seriously.

Matthew said...

You really shouldn't take it that seriously, either, Melyssa.