By Guest Contributor: Lakshmi Gandhi (@LakshmiGandhi)
After seeing Hollywood green-light projects that actively erase Asian Americans from the silver screen (think Emma Stone playing Allison Ng or a whitewashed Doctor Strange) it’s understandable if pop culture watchers reflectively flinch when they hear news of upcoming mainstream film projects featuring characters of color.
That’s also why I did a little squeal of glee in the middle of Starbucks on Friday when I saw the news that Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek was just cast as Freddie Mercury in the upcoming Queen biopic, which is titled Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek’s casting is also hopefully a sign that this movie (which was first announced way back in 2007) is finally on the right track.
The past nine years have seen a slew of names attached to the role of Freddie Mercury, notably those of Sacha Baron Cohen and (in a particular headscratcher) Ben Whishaw.
Earlier this year, Baron Cohen told Howard Stern that one of the big reasons he walked away from the project was because of his disagreements with the surviving members of Queen on how Mercury’s life should be portrayed.
“There are amazing stories about Freddie Mercury. “he guy was wild. I mean he was living an extreme lifestyle. There are stories of… little people with plates with cocaine on their heads walking around a party.”
Cohen, however, said he understood why the surviving members of Queen wanted a more PG-rated version of the film that vaunted the band’s legacy.
(If you know anything about Freddie Mercury’s life, you know that it would be very hard to create an interesting version of his life story that was also PG-rated.)
While Baron Cohen — who is of Persian Jewish descent — seemed a tolerable choice given his passing resemblance to Mercury, many fans (myself included) were exasperated by the rumored selection of Whishaw in 2013. One fan petition urged both the band and the filmmakers to cast a South Asian or Persian actor for the role. “This movie will be very important in telling Freddie Mercury’s story, and should be honest, respectful and authentic,” the organizers wrote at the time.
Considering that Mercury’s Parsi background and South Asian roots have often been overlooked by biographers and music journalists, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many music fans still do not know about Mercury’s background. But let’s hope that the casting of Malek — who is Arab American — means that the screenwriters are willing to at least acknowledge things like Mercury’s childhood in Bombay and his family’s unique immigration story as Indian immigrants to Britain in the 1960s.
Granted, these are very high expectations for what will ultimately be a film directed by X-Men’s Bryan Singer. But then again, what is life without dreams?
Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.
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