White male actors called Ben, Chris, Daniel, James or Tom are more likely to be hired for a leading role in a film than an Asian and Pacific Islander woman with any name in all of Hollywood.
That’s one of the surprising statistics revealed in a new report, titled “The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films,” that uncovers the limited film portrayals of the API community.
The study — conducted by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, with funding from Amazon Studios and UTA Foundation — assessed Asian and Pacific Islander leads and speaking characters across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019.
Across 51,159 speaking characters in the movies evaluated, 5.9% were API. That falls short of the 7.1% of the U.S. population that identifies as API. Moreover, the report reveals that 39% of all movies fail to show even one API character. Broken down separately, the findings are even more glaring; 40.2% of films didn’t have a single Asian character and 94.2% didn’t feature a Pacific Islander.
Results of the study come amid a rise in violence against the Asian community in the U.S. The report asserts that popular films can perpetuate erasure and stereotyping of a group, which can fuel discrimination and psychological harm.
“These findings offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences,” said Dr. Smith. “Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression toward this community. When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”
When it comes to starring roles, only 44 (or 3.4%) of all 1,300 movies had an API lead or co-star across 13 years, with only six of those featuring an API woman in a leading role. In comparison, 336 separate white male actors were cast in leading roles across the same time frame. As for the 44 movies led by API actors, Dwayne Johnson accounted for one-third of those roles, having appeared in 14 of the highest-grossing films between 2007 and 2019. After Johnson, the API actors with the most leading roles were Keanu Reeves (with five), Jon Cho (with three), Constance Wu (with two) and Dev Patel (with two).
In the few movies that did showcase API actors, the study argues those characters had a tendency to be stereotyped or tokenized. Women were underrepresented, as were members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities. Just 13% of roles portrayed by API actors were fully fleshed out and complex parts, without being reduced to villains, foreigners or sidekicks. Some of the positive portrayals, per the study, include Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik in the Universal romantic comedy “Yesterday” and Dwayne Johnson’s Bravestone in “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” said Dr. Yuen. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion. In 2019, 30% of API primary and secondary characters were either one of the only, or interacted with no other API characters on screen. We need to see more than one API character on screen interacting with one another in meaningful ways.”
Behind-the-camera, the stats were even more dire. A total of 1,447 filmmakers were credited with directing the top 100 films of the past 13 years. Of that sample, only 3.5% of directors were API — including Ang Lee, Bong Joon Ho, Jon M. Chu, M. Night Shyamalan and Taika Waititi — and just three were women. The study says no API woman was credited as the sole director of a top-grossing, live-action feature film between 2007 and 2019. At the same time, 2.5% of producers were API and 3.3% were casting directors.
“Not one API woman has received sole directing credit for a live-action, top-grossing feature film in the last 13 years,” said Dr. Smith. “Inclusion of the API community thus far has been little more than lip service. Opening up opportunity behind the camera for the API community and in particular, API women, is essential to seeing more authentic, humanized portrayals on screen.”
Actor Daniel Dae Kim called results of the study “sobering.”
“The numbers speak for themselves — again,” he said. “They are a sobering look at how far the industry still has to go to counter the invisibility of our community onscreen. If anything is to improve, the historic indifference on the part of decision makers toward increased Asian American representation must go beyond the usual performative rhetoric to actual, demonstrable change.”
Amazon Studios’ global head of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Latasha Gillespie says confronting “the hard truths and data” is the only way to “reconcile past harm, invisibility, and stereotypes on screen.”
“This study is an opportunity for all content creators and media companies to examine and root cause decisions that contributed to our current state, but more importantly drive ongoing accountability in our work,” Gillespie said.