Race Issues: Who’s Behind the Camera? When Asian Film and TV Is Made By White People

The year is 2018, and I’m walking out of the movie theater after having watched the film “Crazy Rich Asians” for the third time. My third time seeing it, and I still shed tears at the wedding scene. I know that to most people, the movie isn’t good enough to warrant three viewings at the theater, but for a young person of East Asian descent born and raised in North America like myself, it was monumental that such a big movie featuring Asian-American characters was playing in theaters.

In fact, it was the first major American film in 25 years to feature a predominantly Asian cast, since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.” Though the latter film didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, “Crazy Rich Asians” did, grossing nearly eight times its modest budget of $30 million.

Seeing as the film was based off the first installment of a three-book trilogy bearing the same name, Warner Brothers was quick to announce two sequels, set to film back-to-back in 2020. As we rapidly approach 2022, there is still no word on production, let alone even a completed screenplay, for either film.

This may be partially due to a pre-production dispute occurring in 2019, in which screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim were made egregiously disparate offers to return for the second film’s screenplay. Chiarelli, a white male, was offered a figure upwards of $1 million, while Lim, a Malaysian Chinese female, was quoted to receive just slightly above $100,000. After Warner Brothers refused to back down on the offer, citing Chiarelli’s greater “experience” in the industry, Lim exited the project. Months later, Warner contacted Lim again with an offer closer to Chiarelli’s, who offered to split his salary with her. She turned them down again.

In a quote published in The Hollywood Reporter, Lim compares her mistreatment to the idea that women and people of color in Hollywood are often treated as “soy sauce,” hired only to refine cultural details rather than to do the bulk of the work. This sentiment was echoed in June 2021 by “Kim’s Convenience” actor Simu Liu, who released a statement describing the mistreatment of the show’s majority Asian cast at the hands of white producers.

Liu claims that despite the massive success of the series on Canadian television, “Kim’s Convenience” actors were paid poorly compared to those on the similarly successful “Schitt’s Creek,” and the show was ultimately cancelled due to the exit of two of its showrunners. Liu said that although several of its actors volunteered to contribute creatively, most of their attempts were rejected by the mostly-white writing team. Liu also expressed dissatisfaction with the announcement of a spin-off starring the show’s only white lead, and maintains that he would refuse to reprise his role if ever asked.

The revelation about “Kim’s Convenience” comes just one year after Disney’s big-budget “Mulan” was lambasted online for boasting a majority-Asian cast despite having its director, four screenwriters, costume designer, cinematographer, editor and casting director all be white. All of this goes to show that despite the triumph in casting and supposed celebration of Asian stories, many of the decisions behind the scenes are still at the hands of the non-Asian people in charge.

However, since the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, Hollywood is seeing a substantial increase in the number of productions led by Asian actors. The career explosions of CRA’s cast demonstrate that audiences can control what kinds of films they want to see by voting with their ticket stubs, something I did three times that fateful summer. After CRA propelled newcomer Henry Golding to stardom, he starred in four blockbusters, among which are Paul Feig’s “Last Christmas” (2019), which also starred CRA co-star Michelle Yeoh, and the big-budget “Snake Eyes” (2021). Constance Wu led the highly-successful stripper heist comedy “Hustlers” (2019) and Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for her performance in “The Farewell” (2019), developed and starred in her own television series on Comedy Central and earned a leading role in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021), also featuring CRA co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Ronny Chieng.

Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first movie with an Asian lead and a predominantly Asian cast. Gemma Chan is the lead of the upcoming Marvel feature “Eternals” (2021), which is directed by Oscar-sweeping Chinese director Chloe Zhao. 

Conversely, Disney’s whitewashed “Mulan” failed to gain traction anywhere, neither at the box office nor among critics. Hopefully, this means that Disney and other film companies will think twice in the future while trying to appeal to Asian audiences and consider extending their idea of diversity beyond simply the cast and into the production team. Moving forward, I hope that all consumers, Asian or not, will prioritize authenticity in the films they choose to support so that we can achieve parity in all aspects of Hollywood, even in the parts they don’t think we notice.