Some may remember the 2000’s martial arts film Romeo Must Die, featuring action star Jet Li and late R&B singer Aaliyah as star-crossed lovers amidst police corruption and family secrets. In the final scene, after defeating the bad guy in a ring of fire and facing his father in a dramatic confrontation, Li finds Aaliyah outside waiting for him and goes in for a… hug.
For an adaptation based on the greatest love story of all time, the ending was pretty disappointing. Just a hug?! After all, the 1996 adaptation Romeo + Juliet had multiple kiss scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, from the make-out scene in the elevator to the famous pool scene, eventually leading to them having sex later in the film. Even more disappointing, however, is learning that the original ending had Li kissing Aaliyah, but was later re-filmed because the scene had been received so poorly by the test audience.
The reason? The audience was reportedly uncomfortable with "seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.” In other words, the decision wasn’t only lousy—it was racially motivated.
Silicon Valley actor Kumail Nanjiani’s romantic comedy The Big Sick comes out in theaters today, and has already attracted attention for casting the Pakistani-born Nanjiani, who co-wrote the film with his wife Emily V. Gordon, as the male lead. Nanjiani plays a struggling stand-up comedian, also named Kumail, and meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. After a one-night stand, the two begin dating—despite the fact that his parents want him to marry a Pakistani Muslim girl—a secret he tries to keep on both sides. Based on Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life romance, the story explores themes of family, tradition, and culture.
While Nanjiani told Complex that he didn’t intend to make The Big Sick as a political statement, the fact remains that its existence is a breakthrough in the tired, long running narrative of the Asian American guy not getting the girl, particularly if she’s outside his race.
As of late, Hollywood has shown progress in depicting Asian American men in interracial romances, particularly when it comes to television. Master of None, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Walking Dead, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Into the Badlands, Fresh Off the Boat, and the short-lived Selfie—all of these shows have featured Asian American male leads in relationships with actresses of a different race.
However, mainstream media has always been reluctant in putting Asian American male actors as romantic leads in film. Following the increase of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush, 1800s propaganda—fearful of an Asian ‘invasion’—often depicted Asian men as job stealers, as well as sexual predators to white women. This can be seen in the 1915 film The Cheat, in which actor Sessue Hayakawa plays the wealthy Japanese villain who strikes a deal with an overspending white socialite—a role that made him famous, but also left him typecast as similar roles for most of his Hollywood career.
Then, there were over three decades where depictions of interracial relationships were strictly forbidden. In 1930, seeking to protect the “moral standards” of films, the Hays Code explicitly banned on-screen miscegenation, defined as “sex relationship between the white and black races.” In reality, this applied to other racial minorities. But while actors of different races could no longer be seen acting opposite each other in a romantic context, this did not mean that Asian men were no longer depicted as sexual predators to white women. In the 1933 film The Bitter Tea By General Yen, Nils Asther dons yellowface to portray the role of Chinese warlord General Yen, who kidnaps and attempts to seduce a young white woman living in China.
When the Hays Code began to gradually relax in the sixties, Japanese American actor James Shigeta was able to slip past the Code, playing leading roles opposite white actresses in both Crimson Kimono and Bridge Under the Sun. Even so, it seemed that he was still missing opportunities due to his race—Shigeta later recalled an MGM producer who told him, "If you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star."
The landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage in 1967, and the Hays Code was replaced with the MPAA ratings system the following year. This new system was not based on the Hays Code’s moral values, but based on the content itself. Surely, with interracial marriage legalized and the Hays Code no longer in place, films could now cast Asian American actors opposite actresses of different race in a romantic context.
Except not. Just as they did in the pre-Code era, Asian American actors continue to struggle against stereotypes that emasculate them and prevent them from being cast as romantic leads. In films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sixteen Candles, the Asian male character is seen as perpetual foreigner—with his exaggerated accent, social ineptitude, and caricatured appearance—and his attempts at winning over the white female lead are cringe-inducing. Other common stereotypes include: the ‘yellow peril’ villain, the unemotional martial artist, the mysterious Orient, and the non-threatening model minority.
Mickey Rooney’s yellowface portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was offensive, and whitewashing doesn’t make things better. When there is the opportunity for an Asian American actor to be casted as a male lead in an interracial romance, white actors have often been casted instead. For instance, Jim Sturgess played the role of MIT blackjack player Jeff Ma in 21 opposite Kate Bosworth, while Jake Gyllenhaal played the titular prince in Prince of Persia opposite Gemma Arterton. Even when whitewashing proves to be bad business, Hollywood still often casts white actors as romantic leads in roles originally imagined as Asian, leaving Asian American actors as supporting roles in these film—at best—or else erased entirely.
However, there are notable landmarks in fairly recent film history: in the Harold and Kumar trilogy, Kal Penn and John Cho enter into relationships with white and Latina women, respectively. Sung Kang and Gal Gadot’s romance in the Fast and Furious franchise was a fan favorite. Outside of the U.S., Dev Patel and Rooney Mara co-starred in Lion, based on the Saroo Brierley memoir.
The Big Sick shakes up the narrative as well. In addition to being a stand-up comedian, Kumail also works as an Uber driver on the side. By taking the Indian cab driver character—often seen but not recognized—and putting him in the spotlight, The Big Sick revitalizes the trope with a wry sense of humor and nuanced emotions. He kisses the girl, and even has one-night stands!
The film further explores interracial relationships from an Asian American perspective; while interracial relationships in the U.S. has seen a huge jump, rarely do we see their struggles and tensions reflected on the big screen. In The Big Sick, there’s no clear way to keep everyone, including Kumail himself, happy. So when it all blows up in his face, with his ex-girlfriend in a coma and his parents threatening to cut him out of the family, we can feel and empathize with Kumail’s efforts to save both relationships.
“We wanted to show that it was complicated,” Nanjiani told Complex. “My character has struggles and my parents’ characters have struggles, and all of their struggles are valid — and sometimes, they’re in opposition to each other.”
It was recently reported that Asian Americans spend the most per capita on movie tickets of any demographic in the U.S., and audiences are no longer staying quiet. In the last few years, people have been increasingly vocal about the lack of Asian American men in leading roles. Last year’s viral hashtag campaign #StarringJohnCho had Cho’s face photoshopped as the lead of famous rom-coms and action movies, including Me Before You and Spectre. Similarly, Asian American actors have also been more outspoken in interviews and social media—and some, like Nanjiani, have even started creating their own content.
“I would say that people are actually starved for different perspectives, and it’s such a simple way to make your story feel different,” Nanjiani said. “Like you can have an interesting protagonist, and that will just will reinvigorate whatever staleness there is in the movie.”
He adds that the most successful movies of the year are all from very specific points of view, listing Get Out and Wonder Woman as examples, because of their non-traditional protagonists. Independent films in particular have long provided a fresh perspectives to stories, countering stereotypes still prevalent in mainstream media. However, these films often don’t receive the same budget or attention that Hollywood blockbusters get. Following the success of Get Out (also about an interracial couple), studio execs should recognize that diversity in Hollywood is profitable.
The Big Sick, which was produced by Judd Apatow, first premiered at Sundance this January. Even before it ended, executives were reportedly climbing out of their seats to gather in the lobby. Amazon Studios eventually landed the distribution rights to The Big Sick for about $12 million—one of the biggest deals in Sundance history.
There are still many untold stories out there, and Nanjiani says that his own experience shouldn’t be taken as the totality of the Asian American experience.
“I’ll see people see it and be like, ‘but that wasn’t my experience’—it wasn’t, but hopefully other people will get to tell stories that will be closer to your experience,” he said. “But I think the specificity of the stories contributes to the universal understanding of these things.”