The bamboo ceiling: Hollywood’s problem with Asian actors

Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’, Matt Damon in ‘The Great Wall’: even after #OscarsSoWhite the movies still stereotype and whitewash Asian actors

At least year's Academy Awards Leonardo DiCaprio was king of the world. The Revenant star laid waste to one of the internet's longest-running movie memes by finally collecting the Oscar he'd long sought for his mantelpiece. Yet DiCaprio's best-actor statuette will go down as only the second- most-significant aspect of the 2016 awards.

If there's any justice in Hollywood their lasting legacy will be the #OscarsSoWhite movement. The absence of actors of colour from the 20 acting nominees for the second year running sparked a boycott. High-profile players like Spike Lee, Will Smith and Michael Moore stayed away.

Reports of the movement paid lip service to the racial imbalance but seldom covered its causes. A 2015 report published by the University of California found that although minorities make up 40 per cent of the US population, in the film industry they're outnumbered by whites two to one among movie leads, four to one among screenwriters, and eight to one among directors. #OscarsSoWhite wasn't about Smith being passed over for a nomination; it was about extra obstacles people of colour face trying to make it to the ceremony.

This year 10 black actors and film-makers, including our own Ruth Negga, star of Loving, and six African-American-themed movies and documentaries were nominated. Whether this is a one-off or a sea change remains to be seen.


But of seemingly little interest to the industry is its eternal problems with the depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans. Terrible stereotyping, a lack of parts for Asian actors, the whitewashing of roles and a drought of Asian-American-themed films have been problems for as long as moving pictures have been captured on celluloid.

These glaring issues are reflected in the Oscar history books. Although the British-Indian actor Dev Patel snagged a best-supporting-actor nomination this year, for Lion (a UK-Australia production), only two actors of Asian descent, male or female, have won Academy Awards. One is Ben Kingsley, whose father was of Gujarati Indian ancestry. He won a best-actor Oscar for Gandhi, in 1982. The other, the Cambodian-born Haing S Ngor, collected the best-supporting-actor statue in 1985 for his role in The Killing Fields. As the Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead gnarled on Safe last year, "The other night I watched the Oscars, and the roster of the only yellow men were all statues."

Asian-Americans make up almost 6 per cent of the US population, with Chinese, Indian and Filipino among the largest ethnic groups. Yet Asian actors make up only 1 per cent of Hollywood’s leading roles– whose variety is dubious. Rarely do you see Asians play characters not ostensibly written as Asian. They don’t get to star as the valiant hero or romantic lead. Instead they play the eastern mystic, the enemy soldier, the maths geek, the docile china doll or the sex worker. Their entrances might as well be accompanied by an Oriental riff and a booming Chinese gong.

Let's go back five decades, to Breakfast at Tiffany's. Has there ever been an otherwise great film dragged down so severely by one brutal flaw? Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed caricature of Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbour is among Hollywood's most notorious performances. It's an ugly thing that just 16 years after American atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this depiction dehumanised Japanese people for US audiences. The film's director, Blake Edwards, died wishing he could somehow have banished the tainted frames.

Hollywood has a sordid history of white actors playing east Asians by performing in offensive yellowface. Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, in 1944, and Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1956, are just two of the culprits.

Discrimination against Asian actors today flows through Los Angeles more subtly (although not always: see Mike Myers in the vulgar 2008 depiction of Hinduism The Love Guru). But potential roles are still being snatched away.

The upcoming Ghost in the Shell is based on the manga series of the same name. Its protagonist, Maj Motoko Kusanagi, will be played not by a Japanese actor but by Scarlett Johansson. The Ancient One from Doctor Strange has appeared as Asian in Marvel comics since the 1960s but was reimagined as Tilda Swinton's Celtic Mystic for last year's big-screen adaptation.

The recently released The Great Wall is set in medieval China with a cast led by Matt Damon. The star plays a western mercenary who gets caught up in a battle between Chinese warriors and supernatural forces. Note its white-saviour narrative, a common trope in US cinema, where it takes a white character to save people of colour from their troubles. See also Tom Cruise somehow playing the last samurai.

A lack of diversity is often pinned on economic reasons. Studios want bankable stars, right? That argument doesn't carry much force. The casting of Swinton, for example, is unlikely to have deeply affected Doctor Strange's bottom line.

And without the roles to establish them, how are Asian actors supposed to grow into commercially viable stars?

Little will change as long as Hollywood continues to lock them out. Asian talent stands waiting at the gates, still seeking the smallest of victories. Plenty needs to change before we see them regularly collect gongs.