May 23, 2008
As an Australian-born Asian I am well-versed on the Asian stereotypes that plague the Western film industry. The nerdy Asian guy, the exotic dragon lady, the perpetual foreigner type – the list goes on. Racial caricatures often have little if any basis in truth, but their impact continues to permeate society.
When I heard that Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down The House was being made into a film I was stoked. Here was a story with the potential to be a positive step against typecasting Asians in film. The book tells the true story of how six MIT students, mainly Asian-Americans, perfected a card-counting tactic and reaped millions of dollars from several Las Vegas casinos. The film adaptation, 21, was picked up by Sony Pictures and the Australian director Robert Luketic.
The ethnicity of the main players of the team was crucial to the story. In his book, Mezrich explicitly states that a Caucasian guy walking into a casino with huge sums of money would be more conspicuous than a non-Caucasian doing the same thing – “A geeky Asian kid with $100,000 in his wallet didn’t raise any eyebrows.”
In the film the lead roles were given to white actors. The role of Jill Taylor, based on Jane Willis (who told The Boston Globe the team was mostly Asian and male), was elevated to a leading role, despite being a minor member of the original team. The up-and-coming British actor Jim Sturgess was cast as the team leader, Ben Campbell, who was named Kevin Lewis in the book. Sturgess required coaching to perfect an American accent. In reality Lewis was Jeff Ma, an Asian-American Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who, with his Asian-American friends Mike Aponte and John Chang, took on the casinos.
In response to the casting, Mezrich said that even as Asian actors were entering more mainstream films, such as Better Luck Tomorrow and Memoirs of a Geisha, stereotypes of Asians still existed. Numerous internet forums erupted over what many deemed a “whitewashing” of an Asian-American story.
Amid the controversy the Asian-American actors Aaron Yoo and Lisa Lapira were cast as secondary characters. This happened well into the production schedule, possibly to throw token Asians into the mix. Their characters were nothing more than kleptomaniacs.
Film is a powerfully persuasive medium. By saying something is “based on a true story”, factual evidence is immediately implied. Unfortunately, Hollywood films are based on how marketable – and ultimately how much money can be made – from the story and the actors. To this end the industry dictates when and how ethnic actors can make it in the mostly white middle-class bubble that is the film industry. In the event that they do, ethnic actors are reduced to stereotypes.
More and more non-Caucasian actors – in this case Asians – are being cast in roles that leave little room to diversify.
Arguments pointing to the casting of apparently minority actors such as Will Smith in I Am Legend or John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle are unconvincing. These films did not depend on the role of ethnicity to drive the story. They were successful because their stories appealed to a general audience even though their leads happened to be non-white.
The core of Bringing Down The House was based on the group’s ability to use society’s perception of them to their advantage. By changing the part-Asian characters – Kevin Lewis and Mickey Rosa – into white Americans, the point of the story is contradicted.
Such a decision has significant implications for the portrayals of Asians in the film and media industry. An opportunity to show assertive, intelligent and real Asian-American characters to a mainstream audience was lost.
The studio’s decision to change the characters’ ethnicities is a glaring insight into the Hollywood of the 21st century. Despite the casting of Aaron Yoo in the film, some argue that producers were merely looking for the best actor for the role, or that there were no Asian-American actors good or profitable enough to carry the film.
It is a disturbing assessment of society, as similar financial reasoning is often applied to justify everyday gender and racial discrimination in the workforce.
The cultural myopia of Hollywood continues to ignore the multicultural melting pot that makes up many Western nations. It appears an Asian lead is just not Western enough for a Hollywood film.
Margaret Tran is a freelance writer.
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/05/22/1211182996664.html