Asian Creators Are Making Strides In Hollywood, But There's Still A Long Way To Go

After "Crazy Rich Asians" in 2018, this year will see a growing range of Asian representation in movies and TV.

The Friday premiere of Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe” kicks off what could become an Asian Summer at the movies — a sequel to what Asian Americans on social media dubbed Asian August last year.

That month, “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood studio movie in 25 years to feature a majority-Asian cast, smashed box office records, followed by the premiere of several other movies centering Asian Americans, including “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Searching.”

While they likely won’t see another juggernaut like “Crazy Rich Asians,” the coming months will bring a number of movies and television shows by and about Asian people of many stripes.

After generating critical acclaim and grabbing lucrative distribution deals at the Sundance Film Festival in January, three movies written and directed by Asian womenlong underrepresented in film directing — will land in theaters this summer.

“Late Night” (premiering June 7) stars Emma Thompson as a floundering late-night talk show host who hires Mindy Kaling to be her show’s first female writer. The film was directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Kaling.

"Late Night" star and writer Mindy Kaling (left) and director Nisha Ganatra at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
"Late Night" star and writer Mindy Kaling (left) and director Nisha Ganatra at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (premiering July 12) gives Awkwafina her first major dramatic turn. The film is based on what happened when Wang’s extended family in China decided to hide her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from the dying woman, which in turn exacerbated the cultural tensions between Wang and her family.

“Blinded by the Light” (premiering Aug. 14), which was co-written and directed by “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha, is a coming-of-age story about a working-class British Pakistani teenager enthralled by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

In many areas, the push for greater Asian representation in Hollywood is still a work in progress ― including greenlighting more stories about a wider range of ethnicities and economic classes, turning magnetic Asian actors into marquee stars, getting exposure for Asian-focused projects in an age where there is so much content, and elevating Asians into positions of power in the entertainment industry where they can drive progress both in front of and behind the screen.

“The challenge now is to rise above, be heard above the noise of everything else.”

- Michelle Sugihara of the Coalition for Asian Pacifics in Entertainment

But “we’re definitely on an upward trajectory,” said Michelle Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition for Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), which advocates for more opportunities for Asians.

“I often hear this question lately about, like, ‘Is this a trend, and is this going to die?’ And I don’t think so,” she said.

In addition to the string of movies this summer, there are several upcoming television projects spearheaded by Asian creators.

NBC recently greenlighted the comedy series “Sunnyside” for a full season beginning this fall. The show is co-created by and starring Kal Penn, who leads a cast that consists almost entirely of actors who are immigrants.

On TBS this fall, “Saturday Night Live” alumna Nasim Pedrad will star in a 10-episode series, “Chad,” a comedy about an Iranian American teenager navigating the start of high school. In addition to playing Chad and creating the series, Pedrad will serve as one of its showrunners and executive producers.

In June, the Disney Channel will launch the animated series “Amphibia,” created by Thai American Matt Braly. The show, whose main character Anne is voiced by Brenda Song, has already been renewed for a second season.

The key with many of these projects is that they are “coming from Asian American creators themselves,” Sugihara said. “It’s not outsiders writing about the Asian experience, or what they think the Asian experience is or should be.”

That’s why CAPE’s work focuses on writers, “because diversity starts on the page,” and on executives, “because inclusion starts at the gatekeepers,” she said. “You have to build that infrastructure first.”

Some other promising television projects from Asian creators did not get picked up for full seasons this fall, including NBC’s “Like Magic,” co-created by “Superstore” writer Vicky Luu; an untitled ABC pilot from “New Girl” actress Hannah Simone, about an Indian American father and daughter; and CBS’s “The Emperor of Malibu,” which would have reteamed “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan with star Ken Jeong.

But Sugihara is optimistic that the overall system is improving, saying that she has seen a lot of concrete changes, including an increase in both the quantity and quality of roles for Asian actors.

“Asian Americans are being cast in roles they maybe wouldn’t have been considered for 10 years ago,” she said, citing in particular male romantic leads.

That growth in roles stems in large part from a greater “openness to having Asian creators in charge of their own content,” Sugihara added, noting that she has encountered more requests for Asian American writers and directors.

Another sign of progress is the growing number of stories “where identity isn’t even the main point,” yet they don’t “hide the fact that they’re Asian,” said sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, the author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism” and co-author of “Tokens on the Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television.”

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Searching” are good examples of this. The teen romantic comedy and the thriller both feature Korean American protagonists in multifaceted stories.

“That’s a great role of a three-dimensional, authentic character,” Sugihara said of the father played by John Cho in “Searching,” who is trying to find his missing daughter by uncovering clues on her social media accounts. “I like that it could have been any family, but it happened to be Korean American.”

Yuen also highlighted “PEN15,” co-created by and co-starring Maya Erskine, who embedded aspects of her own experience as the daughter of a Japanese immigrant mother into the Hulu show. The comedy series was recently renewed for a second season.

“PEN15” has received praise for its authentic take on the agony and awkwardness of middle school. It has also been cheered for its nuanced portrayal of the relationship between Erskine’s character and her mother (Erskine’s character is also named Maya and her real mother plays her character’s mother) and its depiction of Maya’s experience as a biracial person.

The growing dominance of streaming platforms like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix has created more opportunities and outlets for movies and series created by Asians. But both Yuen and Sugihara expressed concern that the sheer volume of content means that these projects might not get enough exposure and publicity.

For projects on streaming platforms ― and realistically anywhere else ― “there are probably more people who haven’t seen the show than have seen it, because there’s just so much content,” Yuen said. She worries that if movies and TV shows by Asian Americans primarily appear on streaming platforms, they might become “ghettoized.”

“The challenge now is to rise above, be heard above the noise of everything else,” Sugihara said.

Yuen also hopes that leading Asian actors can “build their résumé,” like landing substantial roles in blockbusters or headlining prestige projects that get them nominated for Oscars or Emmys. She noted that only a handful of Asian actors, such as “Killing Eve” star Sandra Oh, are currently in that realm.

Most of the Asian actors in recent Marvel movies barely had anything to do in them, including Jeong, who had the smallest of cameos in “Avengers: Endgame,” and Gemma Chan, who played a minor character in “Captain Marvel.”

“Those are the movies that make billions, right? We need to get in there. We need to get that money. We need to get that kind of exposure,” Yuen said. “We need more at that level in order to actually break beyond the mold.”

That kind of exposure could come soon. Building on the success of “Black Panther,” its first movie centered on a black superhero, Marvel is developing “Shang Chi,” its first movie with an Asian lead. The studio recently hired Asian American director Destin Daniel Cretton and is in the process of casting the lead.

For another source of potentially profitable opportunities to tell authentic Asian stories on screen, Sugihara and Yuen both identified adaptations of popular novels by Asian American authors. “Crazy Rich Asians” was based on Kwan’s bestselling novel, and screen adaptations of Celeste Ng’s novels “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere” and Minjin Lee’s novel “Pachinko” are in the works.

“That’s where Hollywood should go if you want more of a guarantee. Go for the Asian American novelists because they’re writing really good stuff,” Yuen said.

Hollywood still needs to depict a wider range of Asians, particularly in the area of ethnicity. Sugihara cited the comparative lack of Pacific Islander representation.

But it looks like change is happening much faster, thanks in part to “Crazy Rich Asians,” but also because of the larger national conversation about the representation of people of color, catalyzed by #OscarsSoWhite.

As Yuen said, while Asian Americans “are not at the point where we could really be nitpicky,” there are undeniably a lot more Asian-centered movies and TV shows — certainly when compared to the 25-year stretch from the all-Asian “Joy Luck Club” to “Crazy Rich Asians,” when “literally, we could count them on one hand,” she said.

“We still have a ways to go, but it’s always good to celebrate where we are,” Sugihara said, noting that in the four years she has worked at CAPE, “I’ve seen so much in that short amount of time, so that’s why I’m optimistic.”

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