By Guest Contributor: Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet)
Note: A version of this article originally appeared last year in Just Add Color.
A few months ago, during one of my shifts for Shadow and Act, I reported on Gabrielle Union’s upcoming starring role in a new Screen Gems rom-com. The film is unique among Screen Gems’ repertoire: it’s about an interracial relationship between an Asian man and a Black woman, and is written by Chester Tam.
The film is based on Tam’s real-life relationship experiences. Currently, no actor has yet to be cast opposite Union as her romantic interest.
From my article:
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Chester Tam will direct a rom-com for Screen Gems starring Gabrielle Union. The film, based on Tam’s own script, will be semi-autobiographical and follow “a newly single African-American woman who begins dating a recently divorced Asian-American man,” per the article’s description.
The logline, the article states, hasn’t been fully revealed, but will focus on “how a drunken one-night stand leads to a secret relationship that eventually becomes public, surprising both friends and family of the couple given that neither is typically the other’s type.”
While the plot of this upcoming film sounds interesting, I’m hesitant. Given this backdrop, how will this film present heterosexual interracial relationships between Asian men and Black women — and might it do more damage than good?
In an effort to write this post, I needed to take in some points of view outside of my identity as a Black woman. So, I had some off-the-record discussions with guys who represent the other half of this conversation: Asian men. Also, thanks to my friend Patrick Chen, I was hipped to The Slanted Screen by the late Jeff Adachi. I’d recommend this film for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Asian men in Hollywood. While I’m sure there’s more that can be added to this article, I’m hoping that my research will make this article as balanced and informed as it can be.
Second, I need to make clear that this article focuses primarily on media representation of heterosexual interracial relationships, particularly between Black and Asian partners. While I hope to check any unintentional heterosexual bias in this article, the article itself is about experiences that might relate to me as a heterosexual woman. With that said, I invite people from the LGBTQIA+ spectrum to share their experiences with interracial relationships in the comments section.
Final disclaimer: the majority of this article is about men of East Asian specifically. Some of these issues can be applied to the struggles Southeast Asian men have in Hollywood, but for the most part, the issues I’m discussing here are about East Asian men in Hollywood, since Tam is writing from his experience a man of East Asian descent.
With all that said, here’s what I’d like to see from Chester Tam’s upcoming film.
I’d love to see a film that is funny and entertaining, but that also comments subtly on the racial issues that come with interracial relationships. I don’t need ham-fisted commentary, but I also don’t want the film to be something the audience laughs at, rather than laugh with. I don’t want the jokes to backfire and inadvertently reinforce stereotypes that interracial relationships are abnormal, and freakish occurrences.
Films should normalize interracial relationships while tackling thorny aspects of race that can emerge in some, if not all, interracial relationships. Yet, the inclusion of these plot devices can sometimes feel like a rationalization by Hollywood for centering an interracial relationship. Nonetheless, I hope this film as well as others like it can send the message that interracial relationships are normal.
“Each [Hollywood] project is very different, but they share one thing in common: Depicting interracial love as something that simply exists — an everyday occurrence that is normal, not something that constantly needs to be debated, discussed, or fixated upon whenever it happens on screen,” writes Ariana Davis. “It’s only taken about a century, but Hollywood is finally beginning to not just feature, but normalize love of all kinds. And in a society whose culture often reflects its entertainment, that’s incredibly important.”
“Interracial relationships, as all relationships do, pose their fair share of problems,” writes Nadra Kareem Little for ThoughtCo. “But the tensions that arise from loving cross-racially can be overcome with good communication and by settling down with a partner who shares your principles. Common ethics and morals arguably prove more significant than common racial backgrounds in determining a couple’s success.”
Very few depictions of interracial relationships in TV or film have directly addressed the barrage of sexual stereotypes that disadvantage Asian men and Black women. These stereotypes are perhaps most infamously depicted by the OKCupid survey that showed that Asian men and Black women users of the dating site were some of the least sought-out potential romantic partners.
“Overall, the results seem to reveal less about OKCupid and its users… than about society’s prevailing beauty standards and the ways they skew toward whiteness,” notes Allison P. Davis for The Cut. “[OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder] writes: “Beauty is a cultural idea as much as a physical one, and the standard is of course set by the dominant culture. I believe that’s what you see in the data here …. One interesting thing about OKCupid’s interface is that we allow people to select more than one race, so you can actually look at people who’ve combined ‘white’ with another racial description. Adding ‘whiteness’ always helps your rating! In fact it goes a long way toward undoing any bias against you.”
Black women — particularly darker-skinned Black women — are routinely racially typecast as hypersexual, “sassy,” angry, manly, and aggressive. On the flip side, Asian men went from being lauded in film as sex symbols — such as with Sessue Hayakawa in the early 20th century — to becoming pigeonholed in regressive roles steeped in xenophobia. Instead of being depicted as well-rounded and attractive, they are caricatured as bumbling, foolish, effeminate, and asexual nerds — or, alternatively, as hypersexualized villains who (like with caricatures of Black men) prey upon chaste white women.
Thankfully, it seems like there’s been change in how Black women are regarded in film. Thanks to actors like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and others, people are beginning to see darker-skinned Black women as something more than just a stereotype. They are being portrayed as complex, beautiful, and vibrant women who have rich inner lives worthy of exploring. Similarly for Asian men: actors like Charles Melton, Henry Golding, Jake Choi, Manny Jacinto, Chris Peng, Steven Yeun and others are complicating media depictions of Asian men. In their most recent roles, these men are pushing back against the “Long Duk Dong” caricature of Sixteen Candles fame, and are repopularizing the sophisticated Asian heteromasculinity pioneered by Hayakawa during his heyday.
Also, a growing number of films are, like Tam’s untitled project, tackling stories of Black-Asian romance. In the upcoming The Lovebirds, for example, Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae star as a couple who have to comedically prove their innocence after being framed for a murder. Even though the movie seems like it’ll be full of outlandish moments, it’ll also show an interracial relationship that (at least from the trailers) doesn’t seem to be defined by fetish or stereotype. Each partner in the relationship appears rooted in their own culture, heritage, and upbringing, while also accepting of their partner as a whole and complete person. This seems like a movie that depicts its lead couple as so much more than a fetishistic “chocolate and caramel swirl”.
Against this context, Tam’s film should playfully, yet seriously, address how heterosexist stereotypes against Black women and Asian men not only injure, but also stigmatize interracial relationships between Black and Asian partners. As discussed in The Slanted Screen, “urban” audiences responded so poorly to Aaliyah and Jet Li kissing at the end of Romeo Must Die that the end was recut to show them merely hugging. Tam’s film can challenge those stereotypes, which would alter popular perceptions of both Black female and Asian male heterosexuality.
To achieve this kind of gravitas, Tam’s film should thoughtfully cast the actor to play opposite Union. Specifically, I hope that actor is not already part of mainstream American Hollywood. I hope Tam will look beyond cliched choices like John Cho, who is seemingly shortlisted for every Asian male role in Hollywood. Instead, Tam should select a lesser-known Asian American actor, like Daniel Wu (Into The Badlands), comedic powerhouse Manny Jacinto (The Good Place), or Chris Peng (Crazy Rich Asians).
Regardless of this film’s eventual casting, the point remains: Hollywood needs to support a larger pool of Asian American actors. Not only must Hollywood expand roles to broaden Asian American representation, but Asian American actors need to be taken more seriously in this industry. Hollywood should view Asian Americans as fully-formed people with important stories to tell, not just as vessels for perpetuating stereotypes.
There’s no word on when the film will be in theaters, much less go into production. But I’m already intrigued to see how this film will change Hollywood narratives about love and relationships.
Monique Jones is an entertainment journalist and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a website focusing on the intersection of race, culture and entertainment. She is also the author of The Book of Awesome Black Americans, available now from Mango Publishing.
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