Hollywood’s Inclusivity Problem Is Worse Than You Think
Recently, with the spotlight on the systemic racism that Black, Indigenous, and people of color face every day, Hollywood has seen a mild reckoning of sorts. TV shows that made jokes using blackface have been removing those scenes and Gone with the Wind has been returned to HBOMax with a new introduction that addresses the bigotry and the historical context of the film. And while there are some more important issues that need to be addressed in terms of legislation and justice for Black, Indigenous, and people of color in this country, it is about time Hollywood started answering for its treatment of the Black community.
However, it’s not only the Black community that Hollywood needs to answer to. Western film and TV has been similarly racist in its depiction and treatment of the Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern communities. The way different cultures are depicted in the media does influence the way a society treats them. Here are some ways Hollywood has failed and/or disrespected these communities:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is quite possibly the defining Audrey Hepburn movie. Her iconic black dress and sunglasses are what spring to mind when we picture the late star. It’s a fun little romance about Hepburn finding love with her handsome neighbor — with one major problem. White actor Mickey Rooney plays Hepburn’s Japanese landlord I. Y. Yunioshi, complete with yellowface prosthetics and a stereotypical accent. At the time, The New York Times even praised the performance, saying “Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.” Rooney himself regretted the performance later in his life when he saw the hurt he had caused the Asian community. The character adds a disgusting cringeworthiness to an otherwise classic movie, and I, for one, wouldn’t miss him if he were to somehow hit the cutting-room floor.
Star Trek Into Darkness
As a person of Indian descent, this one hurt. Growing up, my Indian family members were huge Star Trek fans. And, it was a major source of pride to us that arguably Captain Kirk’s archnemesis, Khan Noonien Singh, was a character who was Indian. Unfortunately, due to the racism of the 1960s, the closest Star Trek had to an Indian actor portraying Khan was Latin actor Ricardo Montalbán in brownface. Khan was the result of a genetic-engineering program to perfect the human race. Considering the character was introduced in 1967, only around 20 years after World War II, the depiction of Khan as an Indian stood in stark contrast to the blond and blue-eyed eugenics program run by the Nazis — and this was on purpose. Choosing to make this character Indian meant something. However, also unfortunately, no one seemed to fill in J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof on this fact.
I spent much of my childhood dreaming that one day I would get to see an actual Indian actor portray Khan in the way he was always meant to be. I mean, we had come so far from the prejudice of the 1960s, right? Well, my childhood dreams were swiftly crushed with the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
The one significant Indian character in the entirety of Star Trek was taken from the Indian community in a thoughtless, insensitive whitewashing of the character’s history with no actual reason to justify this casting. Of course, there are those that have tried to make me feel better by saying that originally, Benicio del Toro was considered for the role, but that just tells me that a lot of white people think people of color are interchangeable. Why not cast an Indian actor like Naveen Andrews, who already had a connection to Abrams and company through Lost? I guess I’ll just have to wait for the reboot of the reboot.
2016’s Doctor Strange came under fire at the time for the casting of white actor Tilda Swinton as a character who was originally of Asian descent. However, exactly zero steps have been taken to rectify this insult to the Asian community. The justification by the filmmakers of this casting decision at the time was because the original Ancient One character in the comics was a Fu Manchu Asian stereotype. So, instead of altering the character to I don’t know, not be a stereotype, or flipping the script by casting an actress of Asian descent (like Michelle Yeoh, who so far has been criminally wasted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with just a cameo at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), the character was whitewashed as being of Celtic descent, even though she lives in Kamar-Taj, practices martial arts, and wears exclusively monk robes.
There is a little-known phrase that I will paraphrase here: “When you take an action figure from a white child, he has plenty to replace them with. When you take an action figure from an Asian child, they have no other to serve as a replacement.” The filmmakers behind Doctor Strange 2 would do well to remember that.
Sadly, there are many, many more injustices that we could talk about when it comes to Hollywood’s inclusivity problem. The fact that #OscarsSoWhite ends up trending year after year shows that the filmmaking community is not nearly as progressive as it claims to be. Did you know that only one actress of Asian descent has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar? One. And that was in 1935. If Hollywood really wants to be representative of the world around us, it has a long way to go.
Even sadder to me is when I bring up these injustices to my white friends, I am often met with eye-rolling or comments about how it “didn’t hurt the movie” or “I enjoyed the movie anyway.” How someone could enjoy a movie that actively hurts and insults already disrespected communities is beyond me.
Until we all decide enough is enough and stop supporting entertainment that disrespects or insults other cultures, we may not see the changes we should. If you consider yourself an ally, you need to be an ally to all communities, and not just when it is convenient for you. If sitting out a particular movie is too hard for you, maybe you’re not as much of an ally as you think you are.