- Nathanael Bueno
Hollywood’s sluggish journey towards inclusive representation
It can almost be safe to assume that life imitates art. I could see myself portrayed in the literary works of Ocean Vuong and the film Crazy Rich Asians whenever I tell the barista to “keep the change”. But mimesis is questionable for the entertainment industry because of Hollywood’s lack of diversity, more so representation, and opportunities for marginalized groups. However, the psychedelic absurdist comedy movie mainly featuring an Asian cast, Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO) directed by Daniels, is undoubtedly a great contender of that matter. Nominated for 11 awards, EEAAO took home seven Oscars including an Oscar for the Best Picture category.
The Oscars, also known as the Academy Awards, is a highly prestigious awards event for recognizing excellence in the entertainment industry. It may seem like a superfluous event for aristocrats in expensive gowns to attend, but this event is significantly influential to many cultural conversations and largely plays a role in shaping perceptions of societal issues. The film industry itself also influences society as movies are made to generally reflect social dynamics in an artistic fashion. The problem is that Hollywood is too misrepresentative.
The Legacy of Hollywood
Hollywood has an outstanding history and dedication to underrepresenting and falsely portraying Asians on the silver screen. This misrepresentation consequently perpetuates harmful stereotypes in society and largely contributes to the discrimination of Asian communities. In the classic but outdated 80s movie by John Hughes titled Sixteen Candles, Gedde Watanabe was cast as “Long Duk Dong”. The sound of a gong would play every time he appeared onscreen and he was most often referred to as “the Chinaman” by other characters in the movie. He played a foreign exchange student displaying dim-witted characteristics for the sake of comic relief. The notoriety of this movie and its portrayal of an Asian character demonstrates the harm that Hollywood’s misrepresentation can cause.
The portrayal of Asians in Hollywood has frequently been problematic, especially in its formative years. Asian characters were often exoticized, and white actors would regularly act in Asian roles using “yellowface” makeup. Moreover, Asian actors were only useful for minor roles and rarely given the chance to portray important, nuanced characters. It wasn’t until Hollywood’s first Chinese-American actress known as Anna May Wong began her career in film during the 1920s. This was during a time when Asian roles were extremely limited, and she was often reserved for stereotypical roles, such as Princess Ling Moi in the 1931 film Daughter of the Dragon directed by Lloyd Corrigan. In a Vanity Fair article, I learned of one of the greatest disappointments of her career, which was when she lost the lead role of a Chinese villager named O-Lan in the 1937 drama The Good Earth to Luise Rainer, a white woman. Rainer’s yellow-faced performance even won her an Oscar for best actress in 1938. Despite Wong’s talent, she never got the accolades she deserved, but did leave behind a legacy and paved the way for future generations of Asian representation in Hollywood.
The Night of the 95th Oscars
Almost a century later, Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian actress to receive an Oscar for her leading role as Evelyn Wang in EEAAO “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” said Yeoh as she accepted her Oscar award. “And ladies, don’t let anyone tell you you are past your prime.”
Ke Huy Quan was a first-time nominee and won his Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Waymond Wang in EEAAO In an interview with NPR, Quan explained that he had initially quit acting when he’d reached his 20s because it was hard to land any acting jobs. But in recent years, Quan saw the progress that Hollywood was making for Asian actors with the production of Crazy Rich Asians. This encouraged him to step back into acting, which is how he landed his Oscar-winning role.
The 95th Oscars was a night of many firsts. While there were many first-time wins for actors and actresses across multiple categories, it is important to recognize those overlooked. Angela Bassett was the first actor to receive a nomination for her supporting role in a Marvel movie. Ana De Armas was also the first Cuban actress to be nominated for best actress for her role as Marilyn Monroe in the movie Blonde. Most prominently and controversially, Stephanie Hsu was also nominated for best supporting actress for her role in EEAAO, but the award was given to her co-star, Jamie Lee Curtis, even though Curtis played a smaller role than her.
So why is this all important? Well, Everything Everywhere All at Once is quite possibly the greatest movie of all time. In just over two hours, this movie managed to evoke emotions that literally were everything everywhere all at once. It is, for me personally, the only movie that conveyed very intense emotional realism in terms of family dynamics and with it, a pleasantly psychotic depiction of the multiverse. There is a lot to dissect after watching this movie, but it is worth the watch.
There are varying standards of representation in the media. When it comes to Crazy Rich Asians, the film definitely propelled Asian-American stories into the mainstream. However, as far as representation goes, it stops at “Crazy Rich”. The Sinocentric plot denies any larger portrayal of what it’s like to be Asian-American. It feels good to see a face like your own up on the big screen, but seeing stories relative to your own generates a greater sense of belonging. Nonetheless, I will always appreciate this movie for its personally unattainable depictions of outrageous wealth
While representation alone matters, Hollywood cannot progress without artists coming from different backgrounds who have the courage to tell these stories. Directors of EEAAO Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert took home the awards for best director and best original screenplay, as well as producer Jonathan Wang for best picture. These wins are revered as a milestone in Asian representation in Hollywood. It demonstrates that stories about Asian experiences and Asian talent can be recognized and celebrated on a global stage. It also gives hope for future generations of Asian actors and filmmakers, who would want to pursue a career in the industry.
It is undeniable that representation and Hollywood diversity are effective in shifting social dynamics, and movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once are helping to pave the way toward a more diverse and inclusive future for Hollywood and society.