The King And Not I: Asians, Africans, and Hispanics In Movies

I like to think that businesses know their business. The people who run any given enterprise understand how to operate it: the gas station somehow procures gasoline, the grocery finds a steady supply of food that people will buy, and so on. The company may not be run in the best interests of its customers, but it certainly is run (I usually believe) in the best interest of its shareholders.

Which is why I tend to discount people who simply announce that some company “ought” to do something, and would except they’re “stupid”.

But here’s something Hollywood ought to do, but they’re stupid:

Make movies starring foreigners.  In particular Asians, Africans,and Hispanics.

Not for every movie, but for movies in foreign countries, where the characters should logically be foreigners, just make them foreign. Don’t just shoehorn an American. Or even a Brit. It’s perfectly OK with us, the audience, to have someone of non-Western-European descent as the protagonist.

I think it started with The King And I. You could almost see their minds working: Thailand is far away and weird and scary, so we’ll put an English nanny at the center of the story, and people will watch it. 30 years later, with The Last Emperor and weird, scary warlord-era China, so they had to put at the center of the story… an English nanny (Peter O’Toole this time instead of Deborah Kerr). He disappears halfway through the movie and no one in the audience misses him.

Look at Leaving Rangoon. It’s about Burma in the 1990s, when very few outsiders were allowed in. Still, the producers had to air-drop in Patricia Arquette to be the audience-substitute.

Look at Blood Diamond. Djimon Hounsou was a perfectly plausible hero. Why couldn’t the movie be about him? Why did they have to drag in Leonardo DiCaprio, not very plausible as a Zimbabwean gunrunner?

The worst example I’ve yet seen is the (otherwise quite good) film The Impossible, which is set in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, an event that affected millions of people, 95% of whom were not white. OK, 5% of a million is still a pretty big number, so the decision to focus on the fate of the Belon family, five Spanish tourists visiting Khao Lak, Thailand, isn’t wholly unreasonable. Still, couldn’t they have had two locals with speaking roles?  There is exactly one in the film, a exquisitely deferential Thai nurse (Jomjaoi Sae-Limh), who gets a few lines but no name, not even in the credits.  Everyone else: white, western Europeans.

But sheer whiteness apparently isn’t enough. The real family — like the producers and the writers and the director of the movie — is Spanish, which I guess is just too close to being Mexican, so the movie family was upgraded to English. And not just English: the parents are played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, not genuine English (Australian and Scots respectively) but titanium-white the two of them to make up for it.  How much do you think the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, hated himself for un-Hispanicizing the story?

I guess the explanation is that the hero is supposed to be standing in for the audience, and Hollywood thinks the average white, male American is too stupid, or too racist, or too parochial, or too something to imagine himself as anything but an average white, male American.

Actually, I notice that Hollywood has figured out that the average white male American is perfectly willing to be black: Denzel Washington and Will Smith star in movies all the time, nobody complains. And he’s perfectly willing to be female: Sigourney Weaver, Angelina Jolie, Zoe Saldana, even Anne Hathaway have made good money playing virile macho action heroes.  And he’s obviously willing to be Asian, so long as it involves kicking someone.

So if the average white, male American is willing to be African-American, can’t he be just African, dealing with problems in Africa?  If he’s willing to be Jackie Chan, fighting triads in Hong Kong, why can’t he be some Willie Loman character, struggling with workaday problems in Tokyo or Seoul? If he can be a rat or a fish in Pixar movies, why can’t he be an Indian and not just Natty Bumppo (or Dances with Wolves‘s Lieutenant Dunbar), a white guy mysteriously living an Indian’s life?  Is this really so far-fetched?

I’m actually writing a novel about a young woman in early-1980s Korea who is arrested by the secret police (I’m working on it with my wife, who as a a young woman in early-1980s Korea who was arrested by the secret police ), and there will be no white people in the book, no Americans, no Brits, no Australians.  It’s a book about Korean people.

I’m guessing however well it does as a book, it won’t be a movie.

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2 thoughts on “The King And Not I: Asians, Africans, and Hispanics In Movies

  1. Reminds me of Bruce Lee, who co-developed a TV series “The Warrior.” Unfortunately, he was apparently too Asian to play a Shaolin Monk; enter David Carradine.

    Then again, things worked out pretty well for Lee after that. Until the whole dying thing, of course.

    • If dying constitutes a failure, we’re all pretty much screwed.

      But yeah.

      My family was very excited when “All American Girl”, a sitcom centered around then-funny Margaret Cho– a show about Koreans! Starring Koreans! Sadly, the show was an utter wreck.

      From Wikipedia:

      “She was advised that she was not acting Asian enough; an Asian Consultant was hired to teach her to be more Asian. When this angle was not successful, the Asian members of the cast (except Cho herself and Amy Hill) were dropped and replaced with a group of white friends for the main character to interact with. Cho claims she was then told she was too Asian for this new format.”

      I can’t help wondering what purpose the “Asian consultant” usually served. How often does someone need help to be “more Asian”?

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