In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and the monumental success of Marvel’s Black Panther movie, it seems Hollywood could be taking a new course of action on minority inclusion. African American talent, voices and stories are gaining more of a premium, because the public has told Hollywood that’s what they want. With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale unflinchingly calling out the patriarchy, women’s voices are on the rise, too.
But there are still many the entertainment world overlooks. For instance, can you name a single movie from the last year with an Asian American lead? How about from the last two years? Probably not. In fact, films that should feature Asian leads are still getting whitewashed. From Ghost in the Shell to Annihilation, Hollywood continues to turn characters written as Asian women into roles given to white celebrities.
On television, shows like The Mindy Project, Quantico and Fresh Off the Boat have begun to spotlight Asian American talent. But a study conducted by researchers from six California universities, covering thousands of TV series, concludes that the increase in Asian American screen representation has yet to make a dent in the problem of underrepresentation.
And for Asian American women, navigating an upward career path amidst rampant subjugation doesn’t make it any easier. Even as Harvey Weinstein is getting a judicial kick in the cajones, it’s still more difficult for women to take a stand when they’re of Asian descent. Fetishization, stereotyping, erasure, and a lack of leading roles for Asian Americans, especially women, remains the norm on screen.
What’s to be done?
Stepping Aside & Stepping Up
Hollywood figures from all walks are coming together to make room for minority voices. Execs, actors, and filmmakers across the board are reaffirming that people from minority demographics should be able to tell their own stories, on their own terms. For those in positions of power in Hollywood, this doesn’t mean greenlighting more minority-interest films and shows. It means stepping aside entirely and handing over the reins. And for women and people of color, including Asian Americans, it means stepping up to take them.
Women like Kerry Washington, star of the ABC series Scandal and the HBO feature length Confirmation, are not shying away from the task. Far from it, on the heels of her acting success, Washington founded her own production company, Simpson Street, named after the street where her mother grew up in the Bronx. Her new projects are already inspiring bidding wars.
Notably, she’s teamed up with Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s prolific production company, for a series based on Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere. The series, which also features female writers, has already been picked up by Hulu.
Giving Minorities A Voice
Meanwhile, production companies like Justin R. Ching’s j-school are working to give Asian Americans and other underrepresented communities a platform in entertainment, using their respective voices to tell untold stories.
“In my experience, while many production companies are invested in diversity, j-school stands apart because our mission is to empower underrepresented people to tell their own stories in their own voices,” says Ching. “In other words, I want the leadership behind the content to fully represent the identity of the audience from top to bottom. I can tell the Asian American story because I live it. However, I don’t live the trans experience, for example. I can research as much as possible to enable myself to tell that story in theory, but I believe that story deserves to be told in first person narrative. There are many projects I’m working on where I do NOT want to be the writer or director on purpose, I’d rather be the silent producer supporting someone else who can tell that story authentically.”
Ching helped Fox Sports produce the miniseries Z Dream, which follows Korean-American actor Sung Kang (Fast & Furious) as he restores his dream car, a classic Japanese coup. Ching is now at work on minority-driven content for a premium streaming service and a leading culinary network.
Ching is also a Supervising Producer on Amazon’s Ritual, a Whalerock Industries production co-created by Rachel Brill with ACE Media | NFLPA starring NFL players as they prepare for game day.
The NFL is overwhelmingly populated by people of color, but most players don’t have a platform to tell their stories, so athlete series like Ritual are an important contribution to the minority narrative. Executive Producer and co-creator, Rachel Brill reflects, “Except for superstars, many people don’t recognize players without their jerseys on. Ritual changes that, humanizing NFL stars (and fans) with authenticity, heart and humor.”
Ching’s focus on amplifying minority voices has landed him some notoriety. The Asian American Journalists Association just named him on their shortlist of #inspirAsian, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrating “Asian Americans who inspire our members to do their jobs.” He’s also recently been featured in Forbes for his appeal to a number of niche audiences.
“With a career dedicated to shedding light on narratives of underrepresented groups, I believe in building bridges with other ethnicities, women, and the LGBTQ community,” says Ching. “We need to take advantage of this watershed moment in entertainment to fullest extent, and we also need to ensure that we can convert this moment into a lasting trend, not just a flash in the pan”
Actors Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim made waves when they quit CBS’s Hawaii Five-O last year, objecting to the pay gap between them and their white costars. You may have heard about some of the fallout. Since then, Kim’s production company 3AD Media has landed its own series, The Good Doctor, on ABC.
It’s going to take a lot more producers like Kim and Ching to change the tide, but as long as inclusive creatives are stepping up, the future looks promising. And in the meantime, they’re inspiring more and more like-minded artists to do the same.
The Real Battle Is Hollywood’s
Producers working to get minority voices heard are fighting an uphill battle, but they’re making strides. America is a diverse place, and we want to see ourselves reflected in our entertainment media. The real losing battle would be for Hollywood to continue to resisting it.