Underneath my yellow skin

Groundhog Day: A Lesson Movie Makers Refuse to Learn

When I first heard that there was going to be yet another Asian/Pacific Islander movie starring some rando white dude, I was incredulous. Hasn’t Hollywood learned its lesson yet? Their last several high profile movies involving whitewashing were epic flops, and yet, here we are again. The movie, Ni’ihau, involves a real-life story of badass Japanese immigrant/Hawaiian Benehakaka ‘Ben’ Kanahele and his heroism during World War II. The first article I read only said that Zach McGowan was going to star in the movie, and I flinched because the story is set in Ni’ihau, a Hawaiian island, and the antagonist is Japanese. In other words, there’s nary a white person in sight, so I was imagining the director cramming in the ‘best white buddy’ character so the audience would have a lens through which to view the dramatic events. The social media response was swift, with AAPIs condemning the movie with ferocity. Even mainstream media picked up on it, though they were aggravating me because they put whitewashing in scare quotes, and many of the headlines were phrased in a way to take the onus off the director. “Ni’ihau accused of ‘whitewashing’,” was a common headline, and while I understand why ‘accused’ is in there (I can do scare quotes, too!), it simply IS whitewashing to cast a white guy to star in an AAPI movie.

Whitewashing, in case you don’t know, is taking a story of a minority culture and changing it so that it centers around white folks. The hypothesis behind that is that Americans can’t handle movies that aren’t predominantly white, and while that’s true for some people, I think Hollywood is behind the times in this matter.

I quickly found out that this case was even worse than I previously thought. Zach McGowan wasn’t going to play some rando white guy who aids Kanahele as the latter performs heroic acts; McGowan was cast as Benehakaka Kanahele. What. The. Fuck. This isn’t whitewashing, it’s yellowface, and it’s arguably worse. It’s as old as time–and one of the most notorious and shameful incidents of in modern-ish time is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I can’t even watch two seconds of this without cringing and squinching up my face. You would think we’ve moved past this, but while the newer portrayals may not be as aggressively stereotypically offensive, they’re still as exasperating. What’s even more laughable in this case is that the producer is quoted as saying that since this is a movie based on real life events, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?!?

The base requirement for authenticity is to ACTUALLY CAST A FUCKING ASIAN/PACIFIC ISLANDER IN THE LEAD FUCKING ROLE. I cannot believe I have to say this in 2017, but that is the very least you can do for authenticity. If you don’t meet that very low requirement, I can’t take anything else you say about authenticity seriously. Speaking of which, Tamlyn Tomita, who is still amazing after all these years, has actually seen the script, and she said it was shit. No, seriously. In an email, her first words are, “I appreciate you setting this up, but this script is a piece of shit and I am not mincing words…” She then goes on to list several things wrong with the script, including the notion that this incident led to the Japanese internment camps.

I’m pissed off about this, obviously, but I’m more weary than anything else. We have done this song and dance so many times, and, yet, Hollywood never learns. Now, this isn’t a triple A blockbuster Hollywood movie; the team is British, and maybe they thought they needed a Hollywood actor in order to sell the movie. Now, I have no idea who Zach McGowan* is, but he’s probably recognizable to Americans who actually watch TV and movies. However, Matt Damon and ScarJo couldn’t help their respective whitewashed movies, so how the hell can some B-list actor do it? More to the point, when are directors and producers going to learn their lesson? The cynical side of me says that they probably think that any publicity is good publicity and did this bullshit knowingly. The less cynical side of me says that Hollywood (and the movie-making business in general) is so steeped in racism and insulated from the rest of the world, this kind of thinking is automatic. Yes, that’s the less cynical side of me, which is sad, indeed.

I’m becoming bitter about this because it doesn’t seem to matter how much noise we AAPIs and our allies make about whitewashing and yellowface–this shit still fucking happens. Seriously. How the hell do you make a movie that’s all about AAPIs and STILL CAST A WHITE GUY AS THE MAIN CHARACTER??????? Like, the fucking gall. The absolute gall. This is what happens when we are not in control of telling the stories of our own histories–we get erased in so many different ways. It’s clear that we cannot rely on others to do justice to our stories, so we need to say fuck it and do it ourselves. I did a bit of screenwriting back in the day (purely for personal reasons), and now I think maybe I should try my hand at it again.

I can’t rant about this over and over again. I just can’t.

You know what’s underneath the anger, weariness, and bitterness? An age-old hurt. Every time this happens, it brings me back to being a slanty-eyed Chink in white suburban Minnesota in the seventies and eighties. It’s being ignored when I wasn’t actively being made fun of, and it was feeling like I was an alien in a strange world. I was picked on for many reasons throughout my childhood and teenage years, but being Asian was tops when I was in grade school.

I got made fun of for my weird food, my black hair, and my yellowed skin. I used to wish I were white every goddamn day of my life. When I was eight or nine, I had a woman tell me how much she liked my hair. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “Why? Why would anyone like my black, coarse hair. It’s so ugly.” I wanted fluffy blond curls that I could boing like Ramona did to Susan**, and nothing would have made me happier than if my eyes suddenly turned blue. I hated being Asian when I was a kid and a teen, and it continued until I was a few years into college.

Now, I have no shame or angst in being Asian except when shit like this happens. Then, I flash back to that fat, ugly, awkward Asian kid I was, and my body burns in shame. It’s only for a moment, and then it’s replaced with anger and weariness. I cannot believe we still have to discuss whether AAPI folks should be allowed to portray our goddamn selves in movies.

It’s frustrating that some people, even liberals, don’t understand why representation is such a big deal. “It’s just a movie!”, I’ve heard from more than one supposedly woke person***, and it fills me with despair. If even supposed allies can’t see how alienating it is not to see yourself reflected in the popular culture around you, what chance do we have to change the minds of people even more ignorant?

I think this is willful ignorance, though, or Hollywood digging in its heels. At this point, there is no excuse for them not realizing how fucking offensive it is to cast a white person as an Japanese/Hawaiian person. An actual person. Not a fictionalized one, but a real one. There is no excuse for it, and there is no way I will be seeing this movie. Which is a shame because the story is fascinating. But, I cannot support this endeavor, no matter how many AAPI folks they cast in other roles. They need to get the message that this is not OK, which they don’t seem capable of at this moment.

During the justifiable outrage over Ghost in the Shell‘s whitewashing, Steven Spielberg said that he couldn’t get the movie made without a big name. He added other rationales later, but this one stuck in my brain for several reasons. One, he’s Steven fucking Spielberg–one of the biggest names in filmdom. If he can’t get a movie made on his name alone, then who can? Two, he’s made several movies without big stars in them, so he’s not telling the whole truth. Three, I’ve heard that in general, this is true. Execs are cowardly dogshits, and they nearly always play it safe. They’re too afraid to stick out their noses, and they think having a big star attached to a deal is some kind of guarantee that the movie will succeed. Four, fuck Ghost in the Shell, and, yes, I brought it up partly just so I could curse it once again.

Hollywood is deeply conservative with a small c. They do the same thing over and over again well past the time it’s abundantly clear that what they’re doing doesn’t work. They are not the creative, innovative people they like to pretend to be, and they need to be dragged, kicking and screaming down a new path. Even then, they dig in their heels and need to be badgered into changing their ways. Moana was a smashing success, and it starred an unknown Hawaiian girl, Auli’i Cravalho, so you would think they’d see it can be done. Why not have an honest casting call for unknown Hawaiian actors and see if you can find a hidden diamond? The dependence on Stars with a capital S is failing, and in addition, they weren’t always stars. Scarlett Johansson was a nobody when she was in Ghost World, and she had to be repeatedly given roles in order to become ScarJo.

What I’m saying is nobody becomes a star without a lot of help, and why can’t the same happen for a Hawaiian/Japanese actor?

We have to keep fighting this bullshit, but I’m tired. Bone-tired. I’m too old for this shit.




*This isn’t about McGowan or any individual actor. Zach’s gotta eat, though I would hope at some point, one of these actors will say, “Hey, maybe you should get an actual Asian/PI person for this role.” However, if it’s not him, it’ll be another rando white dude. It’s not the individuals; it’s the system.

**In the Beverly Cleary Ramona series. Loved that series when I was a kid.

***But only about Asian representation.

Leave a reply