In 2014, Asian American filmmaker Joyce Wu released her first feature film, She Lights Up Well (now available on iTunes). The 33-year-old Michigan native not only wrote the film, she also directed, produced, and starred in it. Wu is an auteur in the truest sense of the word—she wrote her first stage play at the age of 20—and She Lights Up Well, a comedy about an out-of-work actress who’s trying to find her way, was Wu’s shot at mainstream stardom and acceptance.
However, although the film received high praise at a couple of indie film festivals, it never got picked up for a wide release. It was discouraging for Wu, to say the least. After all the aggravation—of begging for funding, putting all her effort into something with little tangible results to show for it—Wu moved from New York to Los Angeles to hopefully become part of a TV show writers room. Her goal is to make a “viable, sustainable living” in Hollywood, but despite promise and talent, has found the breaking into the industry even harder than she imagined.
A day after the Oscars, we caught up with Wu and asked her about minority representation at the Academy Awards, her own professional struggles as an Asian American female filmmaker, and of course, Chris Rock’s Asian jokes on Hollywood’s biggest night.
For the past couple of months, #OscarsSoWhite has been trending on Twitter because all of the nominated actors and actresses, for the second year in a row, were white. How did you feel about the controversy? Why do you think the nominee choices turned out the way they did?
It’s always a little—well, a lot—heartbreaking and upsetting. But at the same time, knowing about the demographics of the Academy [94% white as of 2014], I can’t say that I was surprised. As for the campaign? You know, a lot of people tell me, "It’s wrong to boycott the Oscars. You should be boycotting the distribution companies, or the studios." But the bottom line is that it’s shining a light on an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront of people’s attention.
I don’t think the Academy is malicious. Instead, I think it’s kind of like a country club; somebody’s grandpa might think, “There are no good black golfers,” because he doesn’t see them at his country club. And there are reasons, historically, why black golfers have been precluded from a place like that. But the grandpa hasn’t taken the time to consider that reasoning or history.
From your perspective, do you think Hollywood is racist?
The very problem is that nobody wants to see him or herself as “racist.” People think that a racist is someone in white sheets who is burning crosses on lawns, when in fact there are a lot of well-intentioned people who don’t necessarily hate people of color. They just don’t bother to learn about the minority experience, or how the existing society might disadvantage certain people.
What sorts of racial issues have you had to deal with as an Asian American woman in Hollywood?
I was an actress before I became a filmmaker and I don’t think I ever auditioned for a role that wasn’t a massage parlor worker, or an illegal immigrant, or some type of sex worker. I don’t think I was ever asked to audition for a part that was a real, three-dimensional human being.
I remember that when I first started sending out headshots to casting directors, one woman advised me that I should write, “I speak English perfectly,” on the headshot, so that people would know that I didn’t speak broken English. I studied English at Oxford!
How do you to handle these sorts of racially tinged situations when they arise? Are the conversations difficult or frustrating to have?
What’s frustrating is that whenever you have a film with a protagonist of color, it’s considered “niche"—only the people who are the same race or ethnicity as the protagonist are the audience. If it’s a white protagonist, though, then it’s for everyone. I made She Lights Up Well, and I’m proud of it. I’m happy with the movie that I made, but no one will ever see it.
Sometimes, when I talk about how women of color are underrepresented in filmmaking, people respond, “Don’t have that victim mentality.” Whenever you talk about this issue, you’re automatically a victim. You’re a complainer. You’re whiner. That’s what really bothers me, because nothing is going to change until we draw attention to it.
Chris Rock made a couple of jokes about Asians during the Oscars broadcast. As an Asian American who’s struggling to earn respect in Hollywood, what was your reaction to those jokes?
It was an opportunity for Chris Rock to draw attention to the way people of color are represented. And it was a shame that he went for something so low-ball, and, well, racist. As a person who writes comedy, I’m also offended because the joke was just bad.
Comedy at its best shines a light on hypocrisy, racism, and things that are wrong with society. But any racist uncle at a cocktail party could have made a better Asian joke than that. And if you’re an Asian person, ever since you were a kid and went over to someone’s house for dinner, you’ve heard that joke. It felt so cheap and frustrating. Also, it was a missed opportunity to bring the racial dialogue to something beyond black and white. There are numerous other cultural communities that are underrepresented.
Why do you think Rock found it acceptable to make jokes about Asians, on such a grand stage?
Asians occupy a very peculiar place in American society, because we’ve managed to achieve a certain level of educational and economic success. A lot of people think of us as funny white people—that it’s okay to make fun of us. In fact, we face a lot of the same issues as other people of color.
There is no long tradition of activism in our culture. I was raised to not rock the boat, to keep my head down, to not draw attention to myself, and to work hard. So, I’m going to put ourselves on blast for a second: If you’re Asian American, and you have a problem with Rock’s jokes, then you should be doing something positive about that. Most people don’t have a very complex or nuanced view of Asian Americans, and see us as caricatures. So what are you going to do to change that?
Whether it’s boycotting, or tweeting about it, or creating our own work, the only thing we can do is keep collectively demanding that everyone can do better.
Do you think progress can actually be achieved?
I don’t think I would do what I do, or wake up in the morning, if I didn’t think it could get better.
Kevin Wong is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.