Archive for June, 2010
I shamelessly stole this picture from Angry Asian Man. Why? Because it is hilarious. Sorry Phil!
Phil, of Angry Asian Man, had a chance to screen The Last Airbender last night, which seems like a good idea considering how much hullabaloo has surrounded the film. Here’s an excerpt:
the last airbender: this movie could boycott itself
I have seen The Last Airbender movie. Let me be clear: I did not pay to see it. But the screening opportunity came up, so I watched it — I’ve talked about the film enough, I figured I should at least see it for myself. And now I share my observations with you:
My one-word review via Twitter, immediately after watching the film: joyless. Overall, The Last Airbender completely lacks soul, and suffers from a painful inability to inspire any kind of fun or awe throughout the entire movie. I thought I’d at least enjoy the visual effects, but that fails to impress too. Even setting aside the problematic racial politics, this is just not a good movie.
M. Night Shyamalan attempts to adapt the entire storyline of season one (Book 1: Water) into this movie (the first of a planned trilogy). Having seen and enjoyed the animated series, I’m aware that this is no small feat. Unfortunately, overall, the plan fails. It’s supposed to be epic, but the whole thing feels clunky, rushed and at times incomprehensible. You might not have to boycott this movie — it’s so bad, it could boycott itself.
Not having ever seen a single second of the cartoon, I’m in no danger of stumbling into theatres for this one. My “boycott” of Last Airbender carries little water — I would never have been interested in seeing the movie anyways.
That being said, I do support the “boycott Last Airbender” movement that’s circulating the Internets — mainly because M. Night Shyamalan is proving himself to be a downright idiot. After catching wind of the Racebending.com-led boycott, Shyamalan lost his ever-lovin’ mind in a recent interview.
Here’s Shyamalan’s full rant on the subject of race and The Last Airbender:
Q: There’s been a lot of controversy regarding the casting and how all the heroes are being portrayed by Caucasian actors, while all the villains are all being portrayed by non-Caucasians. How do you respond to those who are saying that The Last Airbender is racist?
M Night Shyamalan: ‘Well, you caught me. I’m the face of racism. I’m always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here’s the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he’s Persian.
And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he’s Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good. The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.
There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they’re nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that’s one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh that looks like his uncle. We’re going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.
So now we’re at one-half of the population of the movie which is not white.
Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth kingdom Asians. Now we’re at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don’t have an edict of “don’t put white people in the movie” then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that’s how it ended up.
Here’s the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of … not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!
And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say “Ahng” instead of “Aaang” because it’s correct. It’s not “I-rack,” it’s “ee-Rock.” I’m literally fighting for all this. And who’s getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it’s infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.
Whenever we’re on set, it’s crazy, I love it. We’re in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you’re not supposed to be thinking about this because it’s so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That’s not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it’s a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I’m not understanding … he’s not politically correct?
I could go on for half an hour on that subject … in the end it’s like that saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn’t even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It’s part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I’m sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It’s a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.’
Let’s parse this out, shall we?
First of all, no one claimed that M. Night Shyamalan was “the face of racism”. For the most part, race activists have questioned the casting of The Last Airbender, specifically asking why the casting agents specifically sought out a Caucasian actor to play the role. They want to know why Katara and Sokka are also played by white actors, and why the Fire Nation (which is war-mongering and violent) was re-cast as dark-skinned. Personally, I don’t think Shyamalan was being racist — I think he was oblivious to the larger implications of his attempts to be racially inclusive while still have White leading characters. Shyamalan’s not guilty of being racist, he’s guilty of being kinda dumb on this one. That being said, a lot of this sounds like Shyamalan’s having a Kanye West moment: he’s pissed he’s not being recognized by race activists for making “the most culturally diverse movie series of all time”, so he’s doing the film director equivalent of stealing the mic from Taylor Swift.
"I'm really happy for you, Taylor, but I just had to say, I had one of the most culturally diverse movie series of all time."
I really have no comment on whether or not Dev Patel’s character in the Avatar series is a hero or a villain, having never watched the cartoon. I know that the Fire Nation — the primary villains of the trilogy — are cast as the Big Bad, and they are brown. Can you have not-so-bad bad guys who are brown? Sure. But that doesn’t get around the visual of the Big Bad whom the hero is fighting being inexplicably brown-skinned (particularly when they are light-skinned in the cartoon). And guess what — it’s not racist to question the perpetuation of a Hollywood trope that casts minorities principally as villains (redeemed or otherwise).
Someone please tell me how a non-mixed race person can have a ”mixed race” feel. Please? Is M. Night Shyamalan arguing that Noah Ringer can pass as ethnically ambiguous? ‘Cuz I really don’t buy that. And, as for whether or not Ringer is ”the only human being on the planet” who could play Aang — Phil is skeptical of that statement.
If Last Airbender 2 comes out, and most of the cast is East Asian because the Earth Kingdom is East Asian, I will not call that a victory. I DID NOT WIN! I DID NOT WIN! (Wait, do we ordinarily get trophies for this kind of thing? Did mine get lost in the mail or something?) I’m familiar enough with the cartoon’s storyline now to accept that if the second movie has a bunch of Asians in it, it’s because M. Night Shyamalan is sticking to his wacky racial casting thing with the four Nations in the storyline. We’re not that stupid, Mr. Shyamalan. But here’s one thing I don’t get (and maybe folks familiar with the cartoon can clue me in): how is it that three of the Nations (Air, Water and Fire) can be cast as cultures sharing a similar race or skin colour (mixed race, Native, and “darker” respectively, according to Shyamalan), but than there’s somehow room in the Earth Nation to include both East Asian and Black people? From an anthropological point of view, from an evolutionary genetics point of view, from a sociological point of view — that doesn’t make sense.
As for anime, jaehwan over at bigWOWO had some discussion about how Asians view the race of anime characters. In short, anime is not “ethnically ambiguous”; the anime art style was originally inspired and influenced by Western animation (specifically Disney). Asians in Asia don’t consider the characters in anime to be White because of the size of their eyes — that would assume that Asians universally see ourselves as small-eyed people (we don’t). In the case of most anime, the minimalism of the facial features provides little racial or ethnic information, and anime style involves large eyes primarily to make characters cuter — since a larger eye-to-face ratio reminds most people of babies.
Sufficed to say, many characters in anime are Asian — which can be determined based on their darker eye and hair colour, and the context of the story). By contrast, Caucasian characters tend to have blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes – as with Asuka in Neon Genesis Evangelion. So, M. Night has it wrong: anime isn’t ethnically ambiguous, they just don’t provide the racial indicators that Western audiences are familiar with, so Western audiences tend to project a “White default” assumption onto what they perceive as racially ambiguous art styles.
As I said, I am unenthused about The Last Airbender. I’m not going to see it, but I really wasn’t going to see it anyways. But I’m definitely disturbed by how M. Night Shyamalan is showing his true, and kind of self-absorbed asshat, colours.
"Yo! I'm really happy for you, M. Night, and I'ma let you finish, but I just want to say that you might be one of the biggest asshats of all time."
Raise your fist in the air and scream it with me now: "BARRY WO-O-O-O-ONG!!!"
Here’s my latest post over at Change.org:
Why Asians Don’t Always Vote for Barry Wong
Are you asking yourself: who the heck is Barry Wong? My friend asked himself the same thing the other day while we were driving, and I — for no apparent reason — gripped the steering wheel with both hands and screamed the name “Barry WO-O-O-NG” at the top of my lungs. My friend nearly jumped out of the car in surprise.
Across the country, elections are just around the corner, and that means one thing: it’s campaign sign season. Here in Tucson, these signs touting the names of candidates like Barry Wong grace almost every street corner, sprouting like multi-colored weeds from the fertile sand of abandoned lots, construction sites and traffic medians.
In a state where Asian-Americans represent less than 3% of the population, it often feels like I’m the only Asian American in a two-mile radius. For that reason, I feel an electric thrill whenever I see a Barry Wong sign. Barry Wong was, and is, the only Asian-American in Arizona state politics, and he is running for re-election this year for Arizona Corporation Commission. (Don’t know what the the Committee does? Don’t worry — neither do most Arizona voters.) Nowadays, it’s a ritual for me to scream out my “support” for Barry Wong every time I pass one of his campaign signs — in part because they are hilariously over-sized, and in part because I feel a sense of pride and kinship seeing a fellow Asian-American run for office out here in crazy, crazy Arizona.
I was just chatting with some friends last night, saying that I wished I had been less of a dork and more of an athlete in high school. Little did I know that the math geeks are actually trying to reclaim the term “athlete” from the jocks. Maybe knowing that would have made my high school experience a little less traumatic?
President Obama met yesterday with a group of “mathletes” from California, who won the national MATHCOUNTS competition this year.
I wonder if Obama took the time to ask these kids how to stop the Gulf Coast oil spill; they've probably got more combined smarts than all of the engineers over at BP.
I’m not sure whether to celebrate or cry that four out of the six beaming “mathletes” were cute little Asian boys. I mean, way to represent — but isn’t this a little model minority, too?
I’m so conflicted…
California, Washington, Michigan and Nebraska: what do all of these states have in common?
Each of these states have been the victim of the American Civil Rights Initiative (ACRI) – a deceptively named national campaign founded by Ward Connerly to work state-by-state to eliminate affirmative action programs. In each state, a seemingly benign ballot initiative is put up to popular vote that would eliminate “preferential treatment” or “discrimination” in public institutions based on race or sex. However, upon passage, the measure is used to outlaw affirmative action programs, particularly in state universities.
The most obvious consequences of ACRI’s efforts can be seen in California, which passed Proposition 209 in 1996. In the following graph, the percentage growth of White, Black, Latino/Chicano and Asian students into UC schools was plotted for every year between 1993 and 2009. The arrow indicates when Prop. 209 was passed preventing racial information from being used in admission decisions. We can see that in the early nineties, admissions for Blacks and Latinos was growing steadily. However, after 1996, admission of Blacks and Latinos actually decreased in rate (compared to 1993). Only recently have admission rates for Black and Latino applicants to California schools started to return to (and, in the case of Latinos, surpass) pre-Proposition 209 levels, perhaps because UC schools have adopted a more careful review of applications which incorporates use of personal essays to attempt to glean racial information about applicants.
(As for why the numbers of White students are falling over the entire period, I can only hazard a guess. One possibility is that White applicants were less inclined to provide racial data in their applications throughout this time period, which leads to an underestimation of the number of White students enrolled in UC schools. In addition, California’s minority populations have been experiencing profound growth in the last fifteen years, further contributing to the rise in minority enrollment in UC schools).
In 2008, more than 30% of students in the UC school system were White (and another 40% were Asian), while less than 4% are Black or Latino. Yet, compare these numbers to California’s demographics by race: Asians — who make up about 12.5% of the state’s population – are overrepresented by a factor of three in UC schools. Blacks make up 6.5% of California’s population, yet they are only 3% of UC students. Clearly, race-based barriers are preventing Blacks and Latino students from making it into the state’s higher education system, even with affirmative action policies in place.
If we compare these numbers to 1993, prior to the passage of Proposition 209, we see that while Whites and Asians were still the most populous racial groups on college campuses, Proposition 209 has only served to diminish diversity on California college campuses by reducing the percentages of Whites, Blacks and Latinos admitted into UC schools while elevating the number of Asian students. In short, UC students are becoming more and more homogenized.
While the increased admission of Asian students into UC schools (before and, particularly, after passage of Proposition 209) seem like a justification for Asian Americans to oppose affirmative action, in fact these data should be alarming to all college-aged students, regardless of race. Asian American students, like all students, benefit from a diverse student body that helps foster academic debate and disagreement. Furthermore, even with affirmative action policies in place, Asian American students in UC schools (and, indeed, in preeminent schools around the country) were vastly better represented than in national demographics; clearly, affirmative action (and associated improvements in student diversity) does not prevent Asian American students from getting into college.
In fact, ACRI’s national efforts to introduce ballot measures that attack race- and gender-based affirmative action policies only serve to white-wash college campuses by reducing the numbers of already underrepresented minority students. Not only are Black and Latino students turned away in the admissions process, but underrepresented minorities who are admitted feel disinclined to attend California schools when faced with the diminishing number of other students who will share their race, ethnicity or culture — what UCLA chancellor Thomas Lifka terms a loss in “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities – which ordinarily help new students integrate into the college community and create social and support networks.
Despite these dismal statistics, ACRI counts the marginalization of Black and Latino students in higher education as a victory, and has pressed forward with ballot measures similar to Proposition 209 in a variety of states. Such ballot measures have passed in Washington, Michigan and Nebraska.
In 2008, ACRI attempted to introduce a similar ballot measure in Arizona (Proposition 104) that would have amended the Arizona Constitution to ban discrimination or “preferential treatment… on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin” in public institutions, but were unable to collect enough valid signatures to add the motion to the ballot. Instead, ACRI and its supporters decided to reintroduce the ballot measure this year after it was approved for inclusion on the November ballot by both the State House and the State Senate, and will appear as Proposition 107 (click here for the full text of Proposition 107).
California has already set the precedent for what might happen if 107 gets passed in the state of Arizona, not just to our state universities, but to our businesses and economy. In addition to what I discuss above, Susan Kaufmann, the Associate Director for the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan, wrote this summary of the far-reaching effects of Proposition 209 in California:
Prop. 209 has resulted in the elimination of services such as college preparation programs for students of color, summer science programs for girls, outreach to minority- and women-owned businesses to notify them of government contracting opportunities, and funding for training of minority professionals in fields where they are underrepresented. It has ended the requirement that state boards reflect the population of the state and also ended numerous voluntary K-12 school integration efforts. It has led to significant decreases in government contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses, hiring of minority and female university professors, and the percentages of women and minorities working in the construction trades. In addition, it has led to decreases in the percentages of African Americans and Native Americans enrolled in the University of California system and apparently to similar decreases in the California State University system.
Based on this history, we can expect the passage of Proposition 107 to have lasting negative effects in our state. The diversity of our state schools will evaporate. Our state universities, which are responsible for a significant fraction of our state economy, will experience a sharp reduction in applications from in-state and out-of-state students, particularly from students fearing a racially intolerant atmosphere in Arizona (as we have already seen happen to The University of Arizona in response to the passage of SB 1070). Federal dollars (in the form of scholarships and grants) awarded to the state specifically for the purposes of raising racial diversity in public schools and the private sector may evaporate. Gender and ethnic studies programs at our universities — such as African American Studies, Chicano Studies and Asian Pacific American Studies – may cease to exist. Businesses that rely on skilled labourers (and who are already discouraged from moving to Arizona by our abysmal educational system rankings) — and that have private hiring policies that include raising diversity amongst their employees – may be less likely to move to Arizona without a pool of promising minority college graduates to recruit and hire.
In short, Arizona stands to lose a lot of state money — not to mention, national respect — if Proposition 107 is passed. And these days, we haven’t got much of either to spare.
Sadly, the supporters of Arizona’s Proposition 107 will not reveal any of those truths to the voting public. The website established by the ACRI to support the 2008 effort to put this ballot measure to a vote openly lies to the Arizona constituency by arguing that the ballot measure would not affect affirmative action practices, when (as seen in California) the ballot measure is specifically designed to abolish affirmative action.
Most alarmingly, ACRI has had a two-year head-start in lobbying for funds and political support to help pass Proposition 107. State Senator Russel Pearce and State Representive Steve Montenegro have already indicated their willingness to go to bat for this ballot measure. A group registered in support of Proposition 107 on May 24, 2010 (calling themselves “Compassion for All”) has already raised $1025, as reported in their June 30th Campaign Finance Report (although, to be fair, that money consists entirely of personal contributions from the group’s treasurer). Ward Connerly has announced that he will dedicate substantial funds to getting Proposition 107 passed in Arizona. By comparison, a group in opposition of Proposition 107 was only registered six days ago, and still seems to be trying to figure out how to punctuate its name (note the three separate entries for this group on the Secretary of State website).
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to state the following: Arizona’s students and schools are under attack by anti-affirmative action fanatics who are determined to undermine racial and gender diversity in our classrooms. Supporters of equal opportunity must mobilize in opposition of Proposition 107 in order to protect equality for all Arizonans.
Act Now! A press release issued yesterday from the Tucson Southern Arizona Black Chamber of Commerce (TSABCC) indicates that a coalition of groups (including the NAACP and the Tucson Urban League) are meeting today at 4:30pm at the TSABCC to discuss how to defeat this initiatve. I know this is short notice, but all interested parties hoping to participate in these efforts are invited to this meeting at the TSABCC . Here’s the info:
WHEN: Tuesday June 29, 2010
WHERE: Northwest Center, 2160 North 6th Avenue, Tucson, AZ. 85705
TIME: 4:30pm – 6:30pm (RSVP) your attendance (520) 623-0099
WHO SHOULD ATTEND: Every individual, group, or organization wanting to participate in this effort to defeat this initiative. Everyone who want to send a message “NOT IN OUR STATE’
Daniel Wu, apparently also suffering from that pesky "shirt amnesia" that plagues other gorgeous APIA men, like Daniel Dae Kim and Rain.
With the depressing dearth of Asian American characters in movies and television, Asian American actors carry a heavy weight because every role they accept contributes to the stereotyping, or not, of Asian Americans. There are only a handful of prominent Asian American roles in Hollywood, so each role appears to have greater significance in shaping the image of Asians in American pop culture.
Too often, it feels as if Asian American actors are stuck at a crossroads, having to choose between poverty and obscurity, or playing the stereotypical, degrading Asian American caricature. And, unfortunately, there are Asian American actors who seem willing and eager to play those roles.
But then, you stumble upon the Asian American actor who is surprisingly race conscious. That’s what happened to me when I read this Canadian interview with Daniel Wu, a Chinese American actor who has been dubbed the “young Andy Lau” for his film success in Asian cinema. Here’s a wonderful excerpt from the article, highlighting Wu’s awareness of identity politics:
Having achieved success in Hong Kong, Wu now hopes he can break into Hollywood as a positive example for a new generation of Asians.
“I would like there to be some kind of Asian-American role model for the kids out there today,” Wu told The Associated Press on Sunday as he promoted his new action thriller, “Triple Tap.”
As a youngster in Orinda, California, Wu said there were few Asian faces on the big screen he could look up to. Instead, there was Long Duk Dong — the awkward foreign exchange student parodied in the 1984 high-school comedy “Sixteen Candles.” So Wu found inspiration in a Chinatown video rental shop, devouring the movies of Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li, aspiring to “be in a Jackie Chan movie and be kicked down a flight of stairs.”
His fascination with Hong Kong cinema led to a trip to the former British colony in 1997 to witness its handover to China. Out of funds, he tried modeling and was spotted by a Hong Kong director in a fashion ad.
Thirteen years later, he has 50 movies under his belt and is one of the Chinese-language industry’s biggest stars. Childhood idol Chan has become a frequent screen partner, most recently in the Tokyo-set drama “Shinjuku Incident.” With a summer blockbuster due out on Thursday and clothing, watch and skin care endorsements, it’s hard to miss Wu’s picture in this wealthy shopping-crazed city of 7 million people.
Now Wu is hoping to leverage his reputation in the land of his ancestors to correct the cinematic prejudices of his home country. He recently signed with the Hollywood talent broker Creative Artists Agency.
“It’s amazing that 30 years later, there still aren’t (positive Asian-American role models). And I would like to help change that,” he said.
In the interview, Wu talks about turning down roles that he feels only perpetuate Asian and Asian American stereotypes in the minds of non-Asian audiences. I suppose that the struggling Asian American actor in Hollywood might argue that Wu, having made his name in Asia, has the kind of fame and personal wealth to be able to be choosy about roles — and it’s a fair point. That being said, I do think that Wu should be commended for having the kind of integrity to not play the Asian American buffoon.
Meanwhile, Margaret Cho — no stranger to the world of identity politics activism — also spent some time talking about Asian American diversity on television. In Drop Dead Diva, she plays Teri who struggles in a recent episode with the news that her cousin will be deported.
Margaret Cho on "Drop Dead Diva"
In a recent interview, Cho talked about using her show to address racialized political issues in today’s America, both in front of, and behind, the camera:
Cho, who plays Teri, told Zap2It that she approved of a recent storyline in which her character’s cousin faced deportation.
“When I was just a kid, when I was just born, my father was deported,” she explained. “So it was something that I experienced with my family. It was interesting they did that story.”
Cho continued: “It seems to me to be very true to the immigrant experience and it is timely. We’re kind of coming up around the issues of what is American. Does American actually always mean white? I think it’s a great conversation to have. So I’m proud of the episode. I’m really glad that we got to do it.”
She added that working with other Asian-American actors was a “rare opportunity”.
“In shows, it’s usually just one of us,” she explained. “It’s very rare to have more than one Asian-American actor on anything ever. So it was this special, really rare, cool thing for us to hang out.”
Love her or hate her, you can always count on Margaret Cho to at least stimulate discussions of race and identity in Hollywood. And I, for one, am glad she’s willing to do it.