Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Aloha Hawaii: Ethnic Diversity & 'Whitewashing' In Hollywood

Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim
It wasn't exactly front-page news last week but the recent decision by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim and Canadian-American actress Grace Park to leave the highly-rated CBS reboot of Hawaii Five-O is a stark reminder to the entertainment industry that the issue of pay equity based on ethnicity and gender is not going away anytime soon.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence deserves credit for letting the pay gap-genie out of the bottle with her widely-publicized essay in Lenny Letter in October 2015, but Kim and Park are putting their money where their mouths are.

Since its debut back in 2010, Hawaii Five-O, a smart update of the classic 70's TV series starring Jack Lord that ran from 1968 to 1980, has been a consistent ratings and popular success for CBS - and Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park have been a big part that.

So their decision to both leave the show after contract negotiations failed to bring their salaries up to parity with the two main stars means they're not only exiting a high-profile show; they're walking away from big salaries as well as lucrative money from residual profits from the show being rebroadcast in syndication.

Granted, after seven years on the show there's little doubt they'll both be getting checks in the mail from Five-O for years, but it says a lot that they're both willing to place the principal of being fairly compensated regardless of their ethnicity, over profits.

As Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya pointed out in her article last week, for 14 out of the past 15 years more Americans have watched CBS than any other network, and while the two leading (white) actors Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan are the highest paid on the show, the storyline of the rebooted Five-O is very much centered on Kim's character Chin Ho Kelly and his fictional cousin Kono played by Grace Park - both characters were in the original series.

Saraiya notes that Kim's character is the only member of the fictional police unit that actually speaks Hawaiian on an Island where almost 60% of the population have some Asian ethnicity.

The Asian characters are central to the show's storyline, and promo and marketing materials often feature Kim and Park alongside O'Loughlin and Caan as a foursome.

CBS marketing campaigns promoted the group as a foursome from the very beginning of the show, as shown by the promo poster (pictured left) from the first season of the show.

It's also important to point out the fact that both Kim and Park were successful actors who'd stood out in ensemble casts on widely-popular television series before being cast in Hawaii Five-O in 2010.

It's fair to say that they both had achieved popularity, and their own fanbases, in front of mainstream American audiences as well.

They weren't just draws for an Asian audience.

Fans of the hugely-popular reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica will remember Park as Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (and other subsequent "Sharons"...watch the series).

In a large critically-acclaimed cast that included heavyweights like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, as well as brilliant performances by Katie Sackhoff (who rocks in Longmire), Park definitely stood out in terms of the range of her talent - and obviously her looks, the American-born actress of Korean descent is a former model.

Starting in 1994, Daniel Dae Kim had put together a pretty extensive television resume of his own before he was cast as Jin-Soo Kwon in the ABC hit Lost which aired from 2004 until 2010.

Like Park, he too stood out in a large ensemble cast on a hugely popular show, and he would eventually become one of the more popular and interesting characters on a series with a massive cult following and an enormous cultural footprint.

If you were a fan of Lost you remember his character Jin-Soo Kwon as the lowly fisherman who married way above his station only to become enmeshed in the evil doings of his ruthless corporate crime lord father-in-law.

Kim's character only spoke Korean on the show after being something of a silent enigma initially in a role that had subtlety and depth - it was clear on the show that he was destined for bigger roles.

So CBS deserves credit for casting both him and Park on Hawaii Five-O, but the network has justifiably been on the defensive lately after receiving widespread criticism last week in the wake of Kim's Facebook post in which he essentially announced that he was leaving the show because CBS was paying both him and Park a reported 10 to 15% below what O'Loughlin and Caan were earning.

Lincoln Perry as Steppin Fetchit 
Don't get me wrong I liked Caan in the Ocean's Eleven films, and while CBS had cast the Australian O'Loughlin in a few different series that never quite hit before casting him as the lead in Five-O, outside of his role on The Shield, I'd argue that in terms of overall mainstream popularity, Kim and Park were just as well-known to American audiences as he and Caan.

So it makes CBS's decision not to up their compensation accordingly all the more puzzling - particularly given the network's decision to launch a diversity initiative to nurture and promote more minority talent within its own ranks.

This is not a new battle for the entertainment industry or America for that matter.

And it didn't start with the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign launched after the 2015 Oscar nominations.

It stretches back to the complex film legacy of African-American actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known to audiences by his theatrical stage name "Steppin Fetchit", who became the first person of color to achieve major Hollywood success in the 1930's by playing a character that many considered a degrading racist caricature that promoted negative stereotypes about blacks.

Rex Harrison was cast as the lead in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam, which would famously be rebooted in the film version of Rodger's and Hammerstein's musical The King and I with Yul Brynner playing the lead - as much as I've admired Harrison's performances in films like My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle, it's painful to watch him in Anna and the King of Siam because he plays the role as a tired cliche, relying on awkward ethnic stereotypes.

In the 1950's it manifested in Hollywood's decision to cast John Wayne as the 13th century Mongol warlord Genghis Kahn in the 1954 film distributed by RKO, The Conqueror - still widely regarded as one of the film industry's epic casting fails, the big budget Howard Hughes production is ranked as one of the worst films of all time

Remarkably, Wayne actively campaigned hard for that role.

Perhaps he'd been in so many Hollywood westerns where Native Americans had been played by white actors in brown makeup (like John Ford's 1956 masterpiece The Searchers) that he didn't think twice about the broader cultural impact of a white actor donning make up and prosthetics to play an iconic Asian conqueror.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi 
Actor Mickey Rooney was cast as Audrey Hepburn's comically-frustrated (some say racist) Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in the brilliant 1961 film adaptation of Truman Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A role that director Blake Edwards obviously intended as over-the-top comedy that's now seen by many as an extension of the kind of degrading "Yellow menace" stereotypes of Japanese people that were so common in print, cartoons and films in America during World War II.

White actors playing Asian characters has come to be known as "Yellowface".

A play on the term "Blackface" used to describe white actors who used to play black people by putting on black makeup.

In various forms, Yellowface continues to be an ongoing issue in major Hollywood productions, spurred not by any lack of qualified and talented Asian or Asian-American actors.

It's largely the result of the mostly white male directors, producers, casting agents, marketing executives and agents responsible for making the decision to cast more well-known white actors in roles written for people of Asian descent on the premise that it will "boost box office draw for mainstream audiences."

You may recall the controversy that surrounded director Cameron Crowe's decision to cast Emma Stone as Allison Ng in the 2015 film Aloha; a character who was Hawaiian and 1/4 Asian with a father who was half Chinese.

Josh Duboff's June 3, 2015 article in Vanity Fair offers an excellent summary of the controversy as well as the text of Cameron Crowe's heartfelt apology and explanation for the casting decision that generated such negative buzz for Aloha and led to it bombing at the box office for Sony.

As much as I admire Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper (who co-starred in Aloha) as actors, the reality is that the both of them are A-Lister's who are going to get the lion's choice of the quality scripts that come down the pipeline in Hollywood; based not only on their talent and looks, but on the fact that the bulk of the roles in those scripts are going to be written for white people.

So given the startling lack of quality roles for Asian-Americans and Asians in mainstream Hollywood films and television, one would think that Sony would have actively looked to cast an actress of Asian descent for the role of Allison Ng - because it would have served the story better in terms of authenticity and because it's good for the industry as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & the Ancient One, the Asian character
she was
cast to play in 2016's Dr. Strange  
More recently the issue came up again in 2016 with the release of the box office smash film adaptation of the Marvel comic Dr. Strange.

The powers that be at Walt Disney Studios and Marvel Studios made the decision to cast the enigmatic British actress / performance artist Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.

An ancient Asian sorcerer who taught Dr. Strange who is central to the story.

For years the character in the Marvel comic book has been an elderly Asian man, and certainly there are scores of Asian male actors who could have owned that role in the film.

But Marvel Studios decided to cast the Nordic-blonde Swinton, and make the Ancient One a somewhat androgynous Celtic character.

Which, in terms of cross-gender casting is fine, but why?

Did making the Ancient One a Celtic woman make Dr. Strange a better story?

It'll be a long time before we see an elderly blond female character be played by a young Asian male actor in a major Hollywood production.

Margaret Cho
Comedian / writer Margaret Cho penned an open letter to Swinton accusing her of being complicit in the 'Whitewashing' of a character who should have been Asian.

The letter was published in the Hollywood Reporter and offers a piercing critique and insightful analysis of how the film and television industry perceives and treats Asians - maybe CBS execs should have read it before letting Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park go from Hawaii Five-O over a few measly dollars.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the executives at CBS responsible for this were being intentionally racist or ethnically insensitive.

But I do believe the current state of diversity in mainstream film and TV should have better informed their decision.

Interested in some more perspective on this issue?

Read "What It's Really Like to Work In Hollywood (If You're Not a Straight White Man)", an article in the New York Times by Melena Ryzik from 2016 that offers some unique insights from 27 different men and women who've that found success in the industry is a complex and often rocky road.

Their real-life observations bring home the harsh reality of the specter of ethnically diverse casting decisions that reflect the broader diversity of the American film audience that has loomed over Hollywood for years.

Compensating talent fairly regardless of gender or ethnicity is yet another unpleasant chapter of a long story that has thus far had a decidedly non-Hollywood ending.

Perhaps the courageous decision by Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park will mark a change in a story arc that needs a major plot change.

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