Actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim urged those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent to work hard at “allyship” with other underrepresented communities in order to focus on the roots of systemic racism. Kim spoke on May 20 at a half-day virtual seminar hosted by Amazon Studios to examine API representation in film and media as part of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month.
The rising tide of anti-Asian hate crimes underscores the urgency to act. But Asian Americans in general represent about 6% of the U.S. population, which means that AAPI advocates need to build bridges with Black and brown communities, Kim said during Amazon’s “Voices: API Representation in Film & Media.”
“It’s going to take more than just us,” said Kim, the actor known for “Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0” and, most recently, NBC’s “New Amsterdam.” “It’s important that we find allies in every other demographic. And part of accepting allyship is being an ally. It’s the responsibility of all of us to look outside of our own demographics and our own comfort zones to examine how is this structure affects all of us as people of color.”
Participants in the half-day seminar included actors, comedians, producers, executives, academics and journalists. The event that was made free to the public opened with a table-setting presentation on the past 110 years of API representation in Hollywood from Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist at Biola University and author of the 2016 book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
One statistic stood out from Yuen’s 28-minute presentation that highlights the uphill climb that AAPI performers face in taking on lead roles in mainstream Hollywood fare. Of the 1,300 top-grossing movies released from 2007 to 2019, only 44 featured an API lead or co-lead actor. Of those 44 films, 14 starred Dwayne Johnson, the action superstar who is of Black Nova Scotian and Samoan descent.
“This is kind of funny, but sad. Of those 44 films, 14 of them were Dwayne Johnson,” she said. “So, yay Dwayne Johnson.”
Yuen also gave a mini-lecture on the broad classification of API portrayals in media. Unfortunately, most of the time API personalities and character have been invisible on screen (citing 39% of those 1,300 movies that had no Asian characters at all), or silenced (characters that spoke five or fewer lines) or stereotyped in ways that reinforce racist tropes.
“You can’t help but look at the representation of us in media and the representation of us in general. it’s inextricably linked,” Kim said.
The event was also hosted by the Producers Guild of America. Yuen’s extensive study was funded by Amazon, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and UTA Foundation.
One of the earliest depictions of Asian Americans that Yuen discussed was the 1915 film “Madame Butterfly,” which follows the story of a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American naval officer. The titular character was depicted by Mary Pickford, who was one of many white actors on set who acted in “yellowface,” or casting white actors in AAPI roles. In contrast, another film released that year, “The Cheat,” starred an actual Asian actor, Sessue Hayakawa. He went on to gain a huge following.
“He was as popular as Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, at one point,” Yuen said.
A successful Asian American performer like Hayakawa, however, was far and few between. From Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan, Hollywood continued to portray fictional characters that Yuen called “really problematic.”
“There are differences, and yet some things stay the same,” Yuen said. “There are still nuances to conquer. We have more representation, but a lot of them are tokenized.”
During the “Hollywood’s Complicity in Anti-Asian Racism & How Leaders Can Drive Change” segment of panelists discussed the problems deeply embedded in the industry. Producer Nina Yang Bongiovi said “creating awareness is critical” during a time where her community is receiving so much hate.
Despite the circumstances, Kim said he will choose to be positive about making change and celebrating his culture during AAPI Heritage Month.
“So one can look at that as a positive or as an unfortunate circumstance,” Kim said. “It’s nice to be able to celebrate our achievements or contributions to the fabric of this country. At the same time, hopefully this can contribute to the conversation and dialogue about why we are American and why we shouldn’t have to prove that we are.”
Other speakers such as comedian Hari Kondabolu, filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas had 10-minute lightning talks where they were able to discuss ways industry professionals can change the narrative when it comes to API representation.
Kondabolu, the Indian stand-up comedian filmmaker behind the 2017 documentary “The Problem with Apu,” said he first fell in love with stand-up comedy after watching Margaret Cho on TV. Cho, a first-generation Korean American, allowed Kondabolu to feel “valid.” He said the only consistent brown character he saw on television was Apu from “The Simpsons,” voiced by the white voice Hank Azaria.
“When there was an actor that was in a film who was brown, he was the punchline,” Kondabolu said.
Kondabolu said that networks, streaming services and studios have the ability to amplify marginalized voices by trusting their creators, hiring a diverse writing room and knowing that “their audiences are smarter than they think.”
“Audiences are sick of watching the same thing,” Kondabolu said. “The more diverse a pool of shows and films you have, I think the better off we’ll all be.”
Variety’s senior TV business reporter Elaine Low covered the panel “API Representation on Screen,” which featured actors Sophia Ali (“The Wilds) and Stephanie Hsu (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), as well as casting director Julia Kim (“Minari”). When asked about what they would love to see be changed, Hsu said she wants creatives to challenge and reimagine ways of telling stories and also the people featured in them.
“I’d be excited for artists and the industry alike to take more risks and push more boundaries,” Hsu said.
Ali, on the other hand, said she hopes there will be a time where people allow others to “just be undefinable.”
“Even look at someone and not have to say exactly what they are in your head and have to define them immediately,” Ali said. “You can just let them be”
(Pictured top: Amazon’s Albert Cheng, producer Sanjay Sharma, actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi)