There’s no skirting around the issue – Hollywood has historically been unapologetic about Asian representation (read the lack of it) in their movies. If a part was written for an Asian character, directors would ‘whitewash’ the role by hiring a white actor to play that character.
The late Mickey Rooney famously played I.Y, Yunioshi, a Japanese photographer in the 1961 romantic hit, Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring the late Audrey Hepburn. The role of the slanty-eyed, buck- toothed Yunioshi highlighted Asian stereotypes and was noted by film critics as offensive. However, whitewashing isn’t just a practice of the past. Case in point: Scarlett Johansson was cast as the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the Japanese anime movie adaptation, Ghost in the Shell, in 2017. Likewise, Netflix’s Death Note adaptation – described by Splinter News as a ‘whitewashed disaster’, Marvel’s Dr Strange which cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Aloha in which the extremely Caucasian Emma Stone was cast as the quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian lead, all had white actors take on a role written for an Asian character.
Directors and producers explained that it was all about business and the greenback. Asian actors were simply not bankable enough. However, they couldn’t have been more mistaken – according to a study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, films with diverse leads from various racial backgrounds raked in higher box office numbers and were more likely to bring in higher financial returns. Thanks to the success of Crazy Rich Asians, there are more opportunities opening up to Asian actors for those plum lead roles –not just as that token Asian sidekick, but as leading men and ladies – fictional superheroes, action heroes and change-making family antagonists. Social campaigns calling for Asian leads in Hollywood – like graphic designer William Yu’s #starringjohncho campaign which featured the famous Korean-American actor’s image superimposed on various famous movie posters (which he did NOT star in), also helped increase awareness on the matter.
Let’s take a look at the Asian actors and actresses who are getting lead roles in Hollywood and making waves.