Movie Friday: Jason Chu

I’m in Ottawa at the Eschaton2012 conference. Well… I guess right now I’m about to take a tour of the Supreme Court building, but that’s what I’m up to this weekend. I’ll be live-tweeting the event, so if you’re not following me on Twitter you should be.

Yesterday I talked about the conspicuous and consistent absence of voices of colour from stories that recognize their (our) agency in civil rights struggles. While black or brown faces might be present in stories, but it’s rarely to acknowledge that we were the architects, at least in part, or our own ascendancy from second-class to… well… whatever we are now.

It is hard to talk about this issue without pointing out the notable and near-complete absence of actors of Asian descent from anything but the most stereotypical roles. Again, roles when a group’s foreign-ness is their chief identifying feature only serve to perpetuate their ‘other’ status. This issue came to a head recently when La Jolla Playhouse cast a multi-racial group in a play set in China:

“The Nightingale” may be set in ancient China, but you won’t see many Asians in the cast. In fact, the emperor in the play’s ancient Chinese setting is white. The musical, which has a multiracial cast and is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fable, is currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The casting has angered some in the theater community and, as you might expect, Asian-Americans. Critics have taken to the blogosphere and social media in recent weeks, saying the casting choices are part of a long history of racial insensitivity and tone deafness on the part of the entertainment industry.

Jason Chu gives his response:

Of course there are many who would say that ‘race-blind’ casting is the answer to addressing the absence of certain races from places on the stage. After all, once you stop keeping people out, they’ll just walk in of their own accord, right? Well we saw the criticism of that approach earlier in the week. Asian-American actors exist in a climate where they can’t be in supposedly ‘race neutral’ roles, and where they are Asian-faced out of prominent roles that are not race-blind. And yes, Lucy Liu is Watson. That’s one.

The fact is that we cannot pretend as though our decisions exist in a historical vacuum where racism doesn’t continue to keep its thumb on the scale of our decision-making as a society. These questions are not easily answered, but until we start listening to and incorporating the stories of those who have traditionally been exlcuded from the conversation, rather than simply proclaiming the end of racism now that we have made a show of no longer actively keeping those people out, we will make very little progress.

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  1. jesse says

    This is why I want to see Idris Elba cast as James Bond.

    Really, man, how cool would that be?

    (I say this after watching Luther and loving it).

  2. smrnda says

    Sometimes I think that race doesn’t matter in who you cast for a play, but this is when I’m thinking of the fact that Hamlet could be Black and the ghost of his father could be played by some Asian guy and the play would still work, and the demand that the cast be white (since it’s supposed to be Denmark) I’d dismiss as ridiculous. It’s totally different when the issue is the exclusion rather than the inclusion of minority performers.

  3. says

    Hmm as to the meat of the post. I’m reminded of a minor recurring character on the show JAG. One of the main characters is surprised when they meet the new officer Tracy Manetti, turns out to be an asian woman from Virginia (I have no idea if this was always in the script or if they wrote it in after casting). Of course this in no way disproves his point which is sadly all too true.

  4. Riptide says

    JAG was a pretty good show. Not perfect, but it brought up some interesting race questions. One storyline had a high-ranking black officer grapple with his own feelings about Asians, and it was clear that he wasn’t sure whether or not he was prejudiced one way or another, but he struggled with it.

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