With shows like Empire and Scandal enjoying popularity and critical acclaim, it may feel as if Hollywood is diversifying. But actor and comedian Aziz Ansari questions whether Hollywood is making a genuine effort to cast minorities.
I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures.
Ansari describes the excitement he felt as a child when he saw, for the first time, an American movie featuring an Indian character:
This made Short Circuit 2 special. An Indian lead character? With a Caucasian love interest? In the 1980s? What’s going on here? A bold foray into diversity far ahead of its time?
He then goes on to explain that Short Circuit 2's Indian lead Ben Jahveri is actually a white actor, Fisher Stevens, donning brownface.
As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin, the banker who tricks Johnny 5 into helping him commit a jewel heist. As an adult, I thought the bad guy was actually Mr. Stevens, who mocked my ethnicity.
Nearly 30 years after the film's debut, Ansari says he sat down with Stevens to discuss his Short Circuit 2 character and use of brownface. Ansari adds that after spending time with Stevens, he now sees him as a struggling actor, rather than a villain.
At first, he was remarkably casual, cooking dinner as we talked, seemingly happy to recall his days with Johnny 5.
“Originally, the role of Benjamin was a white grad student, and then the director and co-writer of Short Circuit changed the character to Indian,” he told me. They then went to Mr. Stevens and asked, “Can you play Indian?”
It was 1987, so we were all a little less savvy about the things we were doing that were actually hurtful to large groups of people, and the answer, for a 21-year-old struggling actor, was yes.
Although Ansari sympathizes with Stevens and notes that we do see more Asians in Hollywood today than in the '80s, he questions whether Hollywood's major players are actually making a concerted effort to find diverse actors for diverse roles:
I loved The Social Network, but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, The Martian was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin. (The Indian actor Irrfan Khan was reportedly in talks to take the role, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.)
My efforts to get responses from people who made these decisions were unsuccessful. But I don’t want to judge them before knowing the full story, especially because I know that both films made at least some attempts to pursue Indian actors. I auditioned for The Social Network, and I was horrible. I tried to improvise and make the role funny. I was a young actor who didn’t understand what he was doing. I was also asked to audition for a part in The Martian (not Kapoor), but I skimmed the script and—no offense—it seemed like a boring movie about a white guy stuck on Mars for two hours who gets fired up about plants, so it didn’t seem worth taking a break from my own projects. (I’ve heard the film is fantastic.) So, I know the filmmakers made an effort to cast Indian actors, but how hard did they try?
For his part, Ansari is trying to help diversify Hollywood by teaming up with fellow Asian-American Alan Yang, who co-directs the comedian's new Netflix show Master of None. Although Ansari himself is creating more roles for people of color, he also recognizes that privilege is necessary to create change. The comedian credits a white man for helping him get his start in the entertainment industry:
But I wouldn’t be in the position to do any of this, and neither would Alan, unless some straight white guy, in this case Mike Schur, had given us jobs on Parks and Recreation. Without that opportunity, we wouldn’t have developed the experience necessary to tell our stories. So if you’re a straight white guy, do the industry a solid and give minorities a second look.
Whether he's creating more roles for people of color or penning a thoughtful essay, we're happy to see Ansari fight underrepresentation, one step at a time.