And yet, it was quite deflating to see the recent USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report “The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders Across 1,300 Films,” by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen. The study, which you can find here, found that just 44 of those films featured an API lead or co-star. And in particular, that one-third of those 44 was just one person: You guessed it, The Rock.
I think Johnson would be the first to tell you that he’s just one person with one perspective, and that when it comes to on-screen portrayals, he can’t begin to represent the mixed plate that is the Asian American and Pacific Islander population in the United States.
“I can’t stress enough that Asian American Pacific Islander culture is not one size fits all; it’s not a monolith,” says Cashmere Agency chief marketing officer Rona Mercado. “Each culture, ethnicity has a different point of view, different life experiences, different things to celebrate. And the types of stories that each of them have are so rich and just equally as important. And to be able to help tell those stories, you need people behind the scenes that can help that effort, and really authentically care about telling stories.”
Similarly, the revived “One Day at a Time” series was a snapshot of a Cuban American family in Los Angeles, and just one slice of the Latino experience. But with still so few TV shows or films exploring these communities, it had to represent something more — and that’s unfair to the show and to many Latinos waiting for their own story to be told. Every few years it feels like primetime has finally caught up to the population, with shows like “George Lopez” and “Ugly Betty” in the 2000s, and “Jane the Virgin,” “Cristela,” “Vida” and “One Day at a Time” in the 2010s. And then they go away and we’re back at the drawing board. This year at the Emmys, besides Rosie Perez (“The Flight Attendant”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”), there aren’t many top contenders of Latin descent. And that number is even smaller for API actors.
Still, I’m encouraged that we’re getting there. In TV, although “Fresh off the Boat” is over, Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” and Comedy Central’s “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” — both ineligible for Emmys this year but expected to be back in the running for 2022 — are comedies telling funny and relatable stories while faithfully depicting the unique lives of their Asian American leads.
Upcoming, I’m looking forward to seeing Disney Plus depict a real slice of Hawai’i in the “Doogie Howser, M.D.” update “Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.” And I was excited to see the news that comedian Jo Koy is developing a sitcom about a Filipino American nurse and his family. The Filipino population is the second-largest Asian American community in the country, yet I can count on one hand the number of Filipino American characters we’ve seen on TV.
Now back to Johnson. His NBC sitcom “Young Rock” includes a personal look back at three stages of his life, including a standout performance by Stacey Leilua as his mom and a childhood in Hawaii that has been lovingly re-created by Johnson and executive producer Nahnatchka Khan (who grew up in the islands and knows exactly how to authentically depict kamaʻāina).
I’m happy to smell what the Rock is cooking — but hoping we can get a taste of more stories in the TV kitchen.