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Eric Lin
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"21" Casting Foul

Not sure how many of you have seen the film 21 or read the book. It's about a bunch of MIT students that figured out a system to beat casinos at blackjack and raked in millions of dollars. The film currently stars, Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth. BUT, in the actual story, most of the team was Asian American and in fact used ethnicity and stereotypes to their advantage to pull off their scam. The casting of this famous and well publicized story clearly does not reflect reality. Some people are calling foul and the casting "racist."

Let's think about this a little...

"Racism" is certainly a knee-jerk term that does a lot to excite tension and little for people to investigate the processes that underlie the result.

But, there is an underlying belief in the industry that to be "universally appealing" lead actors must be "non-ethnic" or rather: white; which guides the economic and aesthetic choices of studio execs. Your argument that audiences go to watch people that look like them is flawed because I find it hard to believe that Spider Man 3 became a blockbuster hit with only a white demographic. The argument doesn't work the other way. But, studio execs make the very same argument and buy into that one-sided mentality.

Mezrich has criticized the casting of 21, and argued that it plays into fears of the marketability of an all-Asian cast.

http://www-tech.mit.edu/V125/N43/43vegas.html

This is certainly a result of the limited/conservative social imagination on the part of studio execs and what they believe the public is interested in watching. The fact is that because of this dynamic less minority actors are giving good roles in which to prove themselves and be exposed to the public and thus less likely to headline movies with few exceptions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a filmmaker, I've certainly been told (and have heard numerous stories) that if I had made some characters white, the film would be easier to finance. Of course that is because there are few bankable minority stars because of the very dynamic described above.

Without many minority celebrities, the films are not given the marketing attention they could if Matt Damon is headlining the film. Also, minority films in the USA are ghettoized, made on lower budgets and almost exclusively targeted toward that minority. Could 21 have been a hit filled with Asian Americans? Of course, if the studio was willing to invest in new talent and put the marketing dollars behind it. The fact was that they weren't willing to take the risk and challenge the status quo and made a bland film filled with the usual gambit of pasty bright young things.

Ken Leung being casted in LOST is great because he's on screen but not justified by his ethnicity. He's Asian American but flawed and crazy. Let's have more roles like that for Asian Americans. As rare as it is, it does happen and it's inspiring when it does.

over 12 years ago 0 likes  17 comments  0 shares
Photo 23902
I still think indie filmmaking is the better route for AA's. For a couple reasons: Hollywood films often water things down, no matter who they are describing. Asian Americans should be bringing out experiences that maybe only they know about, in a forum that they own themselves.
over 12 years ago
Chungtsang 5b chungtsang
I felt this film has a great story and would've been a great film as a launching pad for a cast of AA actors. I'm looking forward to you writing those great stories so Asians can get great roles that can get Asian Talents recognized.
over 12 years ago
Mariejost 26 dsc00460
Most stories that Hollywood buys based on real events are changed beyond recognition by Hollywood. My husband knows a woman who was involved in some big FBI case to bring down that mega-spammer a few years back. He was a college student at NC State university and it made all the national media. Hollywood bought the rights to the story and proceeded to make some sort of small movie, not sure if it was TV movie or small budget picture. Well, the Asian guy who was behind the scheme (villian) was recast as White. But even the White actors who were cast to play the White roles didn't in the least resemble the real people. The mousy Southern White woman was replaced by some typical Hollywood blonde. She just shrugged her shoulders and cashed her check. What else was there for her to do? You see, stereotyping is what Hollywood is all about. They certainly aren't interested in making films that feature real people. But then again, are Americans and everyone else interested in seeing oh so ordinary people (white and otherwise) for their $10.
over 12 years ago
Photo 23688
Interesting...I didn't completely understand your thoughts here so I'm not quite sure how far along the fence you sit regarding this issue, but it's a catch-22 (am I using that phrase correctly? Don't wanna be a Michael Scott, now, ha!). I will admit that Asian casts are less marketable, because we haven't gotten enough exposure yet. I hate that it's like that, but that's how it is. I think you should be the one to change that. ;) (I know, easier said than done.)
over 12 years ago
Photo 24009
@ Loleka: Thanks for responding. I think it is a big problem and do aim to address the issue in my own work. But I also think it's a mis-conception that it is only the filmmakers burden to change the industry. Some people say that Hollywood is dumb: giant and dumb and that it follows the money. If people went crazy over an Asian American actor and would go crazy buying tickets for that actor's film, they would put him in front of every camera. Well the main way we can do that is by giving these actors a shot whenever they get a chance. Even though I hated the first one, I'll probably go see HAROLD & KUMAR 2. We can't just blame studios for not casting non white actors when we don't go watch films that cast less famous actors. Support indie films and non-traditional casting. It's one of the reasons I was interested in watching REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES, QUINCEANERA, and NAMESAKE. If the public pays attention to those films, those actors and directors start get the attention and the cycle changes. Culture is not a one way street and too often people accept that. Asian American audiences especially have been accused of only watching films that have been legitimized by mainstream media (would anyone have seen BETTER LUCK TOMORROW if it had not screened at Sundance and MTV Films did not decide to release it?). Don't wait for the mainstream marketing to tell you what you should watch. Seek it out riskier indie work and support it and spread the word. Help create the buzz.
over 12 years ago
Mariejost 26 dsc00460
Eric, I guess you're not completely cynical about Hollywood yet. Otherwise, you couldn't be a filmmaker, you would lose your mind. I pretty much gave up on American movies about 15 or 20 years ago, mainstream, independent, whatever. I find them trite, boring, unimaginative, dumbed down or poorly conceived and/or executed. I think you get the idea. The last time I went to see an indie film was Lost in Translation, which I didn't think was very good at all. That was the point at which I just threw in the towel. The critics were raving about this film, audiences were going to see it, and I thought it was a trite piece of crap that totally wasted Bill Murray. The films I watch these days are all foreign. Many are never released in the US. With foreign films, even if the film isn't so good, at least I'm learning about another culture and seeing the world from a very different perspective from the mainstream US one. I have also discovered many excellent films, and some real masterpieces, watching foreign films. The last film I saw in a theater was Lust, Caution. I see less than 1 film a year in theaters, but at least 1 film a week at home on DVD. And for low brow entertainment, there are always Mexican telenovelas. They are free, air 5 nights a week, and I get to practice my Spanish and develop cultural literacy for working with our Hispanic clients. Many of them are also gems of gran guiñol melodrama like you'll never find in the US. Even better are the American B-grade action films dubbed into bad Spanish. About the funniest thing on television these days. Good luck in your chosen profession. Its a tough profession, to be sure.
over 12 years ago
Photo 22998
It works both ways. Personally, I think if you're doing a "true story" and you cast out the "true" ethnicities, you aren't being a racist as much as a fearful and generic-minded person and in a creative field, that might be worse. Now, it can also work that a film with any specific ethnicity is going to gather a wider audience than it would have if it had no specific cultural identification because there is an modest infrastructure to support it. The latter is certainly the territory of indies. What "people" do to circumvent this whole issue is the make undeniable stars. For example, one could have recast "The Pursuit of Happiness" as a white guy. Why not? But Wil Smith is an undeniably huge star - he has market value. This didn't happen as a random lucky phenomenon, it was very planned so that he could play these roles. Three are actually a number of African American stars (mostly male) who are viewed as a universal box office draw. John Cho is getting very close to this if he's not already there. Perhaps he would have even done well with this film. But, bottom line.... if the execs see a market for the person, they'll be more likely to stay true... so that helps, but it doesn't solve the problem of executive fear.
over 12 years ago
Photo 70570
A good story is a good story. If the story does not require the cast to be specifically a certain race, then since it's an American film, and the target audience are mostly Caucasians, it's normal for them to use those actors. Think of historical period films, like Troy etc, they didn't speak English, nor were they really white... If they wanted "21" to be the real deal, Mel Gibson should've directed it ;-) Good Luck with your own adventures.
over 12 years ago
Photo 1967
Hmm, I read something about that somewhere. I get that people find it racist that white people are used in the movie. I don't know, I guess I just think that as long as they've adapted the movie enough that the storyline does not have the stereotypes, and they've found another way for the cast to scam a casino successfully, it might turn out to be really good. And there's the matter of Asian viewers being really offended if a Korean played a Chinese, or a Chinese played a Japanese, etc. And the truth is, Asian actors are limited in Hollywood. All the Asians were offended when Zhang Zi Yi was cast in Memoirs, but if they'd cast a Japanese, who would go see it? As long as the story works, and they pull off a great movie, is it really that big a problem?
over 12 years ago
Photo 22998
I think burnalive makes a lot of good points! However, the story indicates that there was some significance to the ethnicity - so... hard to know in this case. It's sort of funny how production designers spend days/weeks/months researching thing like how buttons were sewn in the so and so century so that they can be just right and then they cast someone who isn't remotely looking like the people would look. For that matter - all the historical pieces where people have perfect teeth. The whole use of fans was to hide teeth actually.... again - not very historically accurate! This is one area where surreality can sometimes be almost more truthful simply by not pretending to be true.
over 12 years ago
Damanonlinepostdec2015
Darren E. Scott posted on Thursday, Apr 3, 2008 2:28PM I share your thoughts very much. It's an unfortunate reality but I do feel that things are changing a bit for asian actors, slowly, but surely. But as many people have mentioned it's all about marketing. Very few producers are willing to take risks in castings in hopes of making lots of money. They'd rather have the peace of mind before they shoot. To get a story with an all asian cast off the ground in North America is a tough sell when trying to find money. I have a script much similar to "Better Luck Tomorrow" that i have worked thoroughly but haven't had much luck getting off the ground in Canada. I've also had many struggles being half asian and half white. It was hard to be taking seriously for the main asian roles that i would read for simply cause I wasn't asian looking enough. So it was always safer to cast me as a secuirty guard or police officer. But since I've been out here in asia things have looked up a bit and found that there is a need for my look in this market. All and all i think that we need to focus on the positive as there are Asian actors making great headway and we need to focus on that and support them. We need to focus on what's working and not on what's not happening. I truly believe that if we all focus on the progression (no matter how small it may seem) this topic will be a thing of the past and we will have our north american all asian cast tv dramas, sitcoms and feature films. Unity is the key, and Alive Not Dead I believe is going to be a valuable tool in maintaining that unity.
over 12 years ago
Photo 35751
interesting Eric hapasmama.com also blogged on this issue. *sigh* I hope one day studio execs, or whoever makes these decisions, wake up
over 12 years ago
Mariejost 26 dsc00460
Darren brings up an excellent point. If we are so tied to ethnic casting, what do we do with people who aren't "ethnic" enough? If you are bi-racial, where does that leave you? You aren't Black enough, Asian, enough, White enough, whatever? This is still racial-based casting and in most cases is just plain silly. Why can we cast people of varying ethnicities in Shakespeare, for God's sake, and not be color- ethnicity-blind in other casting? In the real world, especially in North America, there is a lot of racial mixing. We could take a lesson from Latin America, where they have the most incredible varieties of racial mixing. In Mexico, one of its greatest singing stars has a Japanese mother and a Mexican father (which means he's all mixed up to begin with). Nobody calls her a Japanese-Mexican. She's just a Mexican singer, because she was born and raised in Mexico, not because she has any particular ancestry. If we want to get rid of racism in our society, racially-based casting is really the first thing that has to go, unless you are doing some historical reenactment, then we would truly live in a color-blind society where people would be judged on their merits, not on their genetic heritage. Would Asians be happy if the term Asian fell out of usage? Would they accept it if people used terms like Japanese or Chinese only for people born and raised in those countries rather than as ethnic labels? I know what I am proposing is in many ways the opposite end of the spectrum from what this discussion started out being about. I think to really get beyond ethnic stereotypes in Hollywood, maybe we need to get beyond ethnicity period.
over 12 years ago
Photo 24009
I understand your frustrations with race and people often talk about "transcending race," which I'm not sure is entirely possible. Colorblindness is often used as an excuse to cover institutional racism and more underlying structural systems of racism. It's a fine balance and figuring out how to navigate it is what will hopefully come about from discussions like this.
over 12 years ago
Mariejost 26 dsc00460
Race is learned, so, of course, it can be transcended. There is a child care center on site where I work. There are children 2-5 years old of all races and mental and physical conditions. It is a developmental day center, meaning there are children there with developmental delays (autism, speech delays, genetic disorders, blindness, in wheelchairs, etc). who represent 50% of the population and there are children who are developing normally. There are children of many different races, too: White, Black, Asian, Latino, and several children of mixed race. When children look at one another, they do not distinguish based on race or physical ability, they just see another child to play with. The Latina and Asian girls are best friends in afterschool. Everyone plays with everyone else, and it doesn't matter if they are in a wheelchair or cognitively impaired, and it certainly doesn't matter what color their skin is or what language they speak at home. Kids see each other for what matters. It is only as they get older that the adults and older children (who have been conditioned by the adults) tell them that they need to make distinctions based on race. It isn't something they come up with on their own.
over 12 years ago
Photo 22998
However... loveleslie - movies are a little bit different... because even as children.... while they might not attach any stigma to size or color - they do recognize it. For example, let's pretend a group of unstigmatized children are asked to recreate something they see. When they decide who plays who - would they not try to represent the cast? It would be a fasinating experiment to see. Also to make it even trickier where there are several variants.... for examplle... let's say you have five kids, Asian, white, black, hispanic, and obviously mixed. And you have the SAME cast members in the play the kids see and will need to represent. However... the genders are different and the sizes are different. Would the children pick by race, size, or gender who plays whom? My guess is that gender would be first. So if that was removed... would they pick size or race in their casting process. Or... personality? If one kid was extremely boistiourus and the others were shy, certainly the most vocal kid would probbly fill the most vocal character?
over 12 years ago
Mariejost 26 dsc00460
Well, Mark, it is hard to say how your experiment would come out. The group I am most familiar with are preschoolers, and they wouldn't be able to analyze things that precisely (a 2 year old has about a 2 minute attention span and are thrilled to see "Tiny Turkey", the production put on by the local children's theater troupe at Thanksgiving and gobble away for the rest of the week). I do know that even gender isn't as proscribed for these little ones. There are always little boys who wear aprons and have a lot of fun in housekeeping and even want to wear the princess dresses in the dress up center. The teachers just let them go. It is all about free expression and imagination. Our teachers are not in the business of promoting any particular gender roles. They leave that up to the parents. We also have little girls who like wearing the fire fighter outfit and the police officer uniform, and I don't believe that the fire fighters and police officers who visit our center and talk to the children about what they do include any females. The academic battle over how much of gender roles is learned and how much is biological has raged for over a generation in academia. I'm am hardly qualified to weigh in on this topic beyond what little I have observed in the child care center over the years. (I don't work with the children, but with other programs for the same non-profit that are housed in the same building.) I am always amazed by how free, open-minded and imaginative young children are. I am sure there is some biology at work, but most of what I see is social conditioning that turns them into what they become later.
over 12 years ago

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