In the 2003 sci-fi film The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo reassures his love interest Trinity that the two will reach Machine City to finally end the war between the machines and humans. “If you tell me we’ll make it, I’ll believe you,” Trinity says, as a small army of machines pursue their ship. Neo hesitates for a moment and replies, “We’ll make it. We have to.”
In some ways, the brief exchange between the two applies to a harsh reality that many Asian-American actors face. Audiences are all-too-familiar with Reeves, who has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. But as more Asian Americans aspire for the bright lights, many of them have struggled to land blockbuster roles. A recent study by children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books reveals that just eight of the top 100 best-selling sci-fi and fantasy films from Hollywood had a protagonist of color. Worse, only two minority actors landed lead roles: Will Smith, who alone played six of those characters, and Reeves. Both actors have starred in major films since the 1990s.
“We wanted to highlight the lack of diversity in that particular industry, but we also wanted to show that [it] is not an isolated incident,” said Hannah Ehrlich, Lee & Low’s director of marketing. “It repeats itself over and over in a huge number of places.”
AMERICAN HISTORY IS PRETTY RACIST AND SEXIST, AND HOLLYWOOD IS A REFLECTION OF OUR CULTURE. HOLLYWOOD DOESN'T PUT MINORITIES IN LEAD ROLES BECAUSE OUR SOCIETY RARELY LETS MINORITIES TAKE THE LEAD.
It’s hard to argue her claim. Asians made up just 4.4 percent of speaking characters across last year’s top 100 grossing movies, according to a University of Southern California study. The figure is slightly lower than the total percentage of Asians in the country, which is just over five percent. The difference may not be much, but the numbers belie the difficulty of becoming an Asian-American Hollywood star. Although Asian Americans are now the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, their presence in films has gotten visibly smaller since 2008.
To some critics, this sort of underrepresentation is an all-too-familiar story. “American history is pretty racist and sexist, and Hollywood is a reflection of our culture,” RaceBending’s Marissa Lee wrote in an email. “Hollywood doesn't put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead.”
In fact, the number of lead roles offered to Asian Americans has dwindled over the years. In 1959, the late Japanese-American actor James Shigeta landed a groundbreaking role as a detective in the crime drama The Crimson Kimono. With his slicked-back hair and clean suit, he challenged the notion of Asian men as scrawny and alien. Seven years later, his better-known Chinese-American counterpart Bruce Lee almost single-handedly redefined that image as Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet. Boasting nearly impeccable abs, the high-flying martial artist-turned-actor eventually starred in his own films and appeared to pave the way for other Asian Americans. But the subsequent decades following Shigeta’s and Lee’s success saw few, if any, play lead or supporting roles.
In some cases, directors and producers ignored them and completely whitewashed films based on Asian-American lives or Asian culture. In 2008, for instance, Columbia Pictures released 21, a drama inspired by a group of mostly Asian-American students who formed a team to beat casinos at blackjack. The main cast featured just two Asian-American actors, both of whom played supporting roles. Two years later, M. Night Shyamalan fended off a hail of criticism for failing to cast more Asian Americans in The Last Airbender, a fantasy film based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series influenced by East and South Asian cultures.
Not much has changed since, according to actress Christine Toy Johnson.
“I think that [people’s] perception of who we are, what we can do, or where we come from is what’s at issue,” Johnson says. “If someone perceives us as being foreign or being ‘other,’ they are not going to see us as part of Broadway or [Hollywood].”
The noticeable absence of Asian Americans in film has irked some observers, who say that TV networks have done more to recruit actors of color. ABC, for example, recently announced that it had picked up two shows with Asian-American leads: Fresh Off the Boat, a series based on Taiwanese-American restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir, and Selfie, a comedy starring Harold & Kumar’s John Cho. “In a way, it’s not so much diversity as it is authenticity,” explained the network’s president Paul Lee, during a press tour last month.
If someone perceives us as being foreign or being ‘other,’ they are not going to see us as part of Broadway or [Hollywood].
It’s also a savvy business move. As the national audience becomes more racially diverse, the TV industry has placed its bets on shows that people can culturally appreciate. Today, most of these consumers are blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, whose buying power "has increased markedly over the past 20 years, out-pacing the total U.S. growth rate," according to a UCLA study. But Hollywood has yet to adapt to this trend.
“I just don’t think there’s enough exposure for us,” says independent film producer Erik Lu. “In order for us to pop up on the Hollywood scene, we need to make sure that people who are writing Asian-American parts are coming through.”
Some artists have taken that matter into their own hands. In 2003, college buddies Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu started Wong Fu Productions, an independent film production company whose videos have since garnered over 200 million YouTube views and more than two million subscribers. The trio casts mostly Asian Americans but often tells stories that are not unique to their identity, in an effort to prove that Asian Americans are marketable and share universal experiences. Many skits playfully and seriously deal with relationships. “The Last,” for example, focuses on a man who reflects on his exes, while “The Best Third Wheel in the World” humorously describes the perks of tagging along on a date.
“It’s important to show that we’re going to build up our star power on our own so that Hollywood can’t ignore that we have millions of followers,” Wang says.
The company’s dedication has paid off. Wong Fu has worked with several prominent Asian-American actors, including Veep’s Randall Park and Glee’s Harry Shum Jr., and it continues to raise the profile of countless others. They're working on their first feature film, a romantic dramedy backed by more than $350,000 it raised by way of crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The movie is just one of its many works that will shed light on Asian-American talent.
“We’re committed to portraying Asian Americans in a positive light,” Chan says. “It’s important to represent the community as best as we can.”
Now, it’s Hollywood’s turn.
Justin Chan is a writer living in New York City. You can tweet him here.