Film — 16 September 2016

gandhi

Photo: Ben Kingsley places the Indian Ghandi in brown-face makeup.

By

Walker Rowe

In California there are more Hispanics than whites and there are millions of Asians. But on the wide screens of Hollywood you do not see that multicolored hue as most actors are George Clooney white. The few Asians you see on the big and little screens are usually cast as the stereotypical immigrant. But this situation could be changing. If not today, maybe tomorrow.

Netflix has a new series called “Master of None.” It might be one of the best original Netflix shows out now. That, of course, is hard to say because there is so much good programming on Netflix. Their enormous pile of content has led many of us to indulge in the new addictive habit we now call binge watching where people spend entire days and weekends watching Netflix series from one end to the other.

Doing that would not be a waste of time if you were to watch Master of None. This is because this unique program speaks directly to two issues facing Asians living in America and young Americans of all kinds. These are the challenges young people face when dating and trying to pick a mate and then the added complexity of doing all of that, and handling work, when one is an Asian living in America.

Akash Mati stars as a second generation Indian named Akshay. He is working as an actor in New York City, doing commercials while he looks for work in a sitcom or film. Because Akshay is second generation he does not have a thick Indian accent, which is something that Akshay finds is what TV producers expect and even want.

The whole accent thing is a continual source of irritation because New York casting agents keep asking him if he can play Indian roles with an accent. He does not want to do that. He does not want to be color cast. He just wants to play an American.

The producers tell Akshay that audiences do not want Asians in leading roles because those movies quickly get labelled ethnic. Than then limits their market. And the market for Hollywood is global.

Akshay is put in a difficult situation when a director gives him and a friend roles but the producer needs to kicks one of them off saying they can have one Indian actor but not two. One Indian actor makes the Big Bang Theory. Two turns it into Bollywood.

Much has changed in the USA since the 1920’s when actors painted their face black to portray blacks, the most famous being Al Jolson. That is called blackface. Now it is taboo. Students have been kicked out of different American universities in the past couple of years for doing that at fraternity parties.

 But as recently as a 1988 white actor played the lead Indian role, in brownface. That was in “Short Circuit 2.” And this year Hollywood caste the strawberry blonde Emma Stone to play Alison Ng, a character who is ½ Chinese and ¼ Hawaiian. Even in “The Social Network,” a movie about the founding of Facebook, one of the Indians Harvard students was played by an actor who is ½ Chinese and ½ English.

Regarding the Emma Stone film, the director of that movie was criticized for being what CNN called “culturally insensitive.” He said, “Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.”

One complaint from the Media Action network was, “It’s so typical for Asian or Pacific Islanders to be rendered invisible in stories that we’re supposed to be in, in places that we live,”

Aziz Ansari talked about all of this in a New York Times article. He explained how when he saw Short Circuit 2 as a kid he thought he could grown up to be an Asian actor too. But then he found out the actor was not Indian at all. He said, “One day in college, I decided to go on the television and film website IMDB to see what happened to the Indian actor from ‘Short Circuit 2.’ Turns out, the Indian guy was a white guy.”

Aziz, whose is a standup comic who has sold out Madison Square Garden, writes with humor of the difficulties of navigating this situation even from the other side, i.e., the role of the director.

He said, “I had to cast an Asian actor for ‘Master of None,’ and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: ‘You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!’ But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off,” like they had no accent.

The lack of Asian actors on Hollywood screens makes having one there noticeable in itself. Such was the case of Sandra Oh, the hospital intern in “Grey’s Anatomy.” And then there was David Carradine, an Irish American who played the lead role in Kung Fu, the legendary 1970’s saga of a Buddhist karate expert and priest who wanders the west teaching people about inner peace and fighting off bad guys. He sort of looks Asian in the series but he has not one drop of Asian blood.

What Asian actors like Aziz want is a world where being Asian in a film is not something that people notice. That is what black people achieved when Bill Cosby played Cliff Huxtable, the non-threatening loveable doctor in “The Cosby Show.” Of course, Bill Cosby is no longer an example that people can cite of an actor who has transcended the color barrier because he faces criminal charges for rape. But he was definitely the first minority actor to transcend the color barrier.

But America will change, and thus what is broadcast around the world, as Asian and other immigrants pour into that country, swelling their ranks. More Asian actors will get leading and supporting roles that do not require them to be karate experts.

You can already some of this in the comedy “Fresh Off the Boat.” That title obviously refers to the Chinese family in that show as being just in from the airport, which they are not. But it sums up succinctly the status of the immigrant as a tax paying resident of the USA but not exactly a part thereof.

In the show, the Chinese father packs up the kids and moves from Washington, DC to Orlando to open the cowboy Cattleman Ranch Steakhouse. Of Florida, the mother says that “The humidity is bad for my hair.” and asks her pre-teen kids “Why do all of your shirts have black people on them?”

But that there is a popular and successful series at all whose principal characters are named Huang is notable in itself.

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