Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders shine on screen amid political turmoil

In a year characterized by countless horrors unfolding across the globe, the realm of Asian American entertainment media offers a surprising — and as such, somewhat disorienting — bright spot. From mainstream film and television to digitally distributed indie films and prestige TV, there’s plenty to celebrate in 2017.

In terms of personal enjoyment, I got the most out of works from those latter categories. Our tech bro overlords have wrought plenty of misery, but they’ve been benevolent in one way at least — Netflix and various cable networks (which might as well be streaming services at this point) provide us with some really great Asian and Pacific Islander content that probably wouldn’t get produced elsewhere.

Netflix, in particular, has been leading the way, bringing numerous anime series and Asian films and dramas to western audiences for the first time. (While it’s true that plenty of services for Asian content exist, they mostly provide exclusively Asian content for people who are already interested.) They even revived Japanese reality show “Terrace House” with, apparently, both a Japanese and U.S. audience in mind. One can’t help but speculate on the kinds of data that informed this decision.

For instance, Netflix produced Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” which stars Korean actor Ahn Seo-Hyun and features Korean American actor Steve Yeun (of “The Walking Dead” fame) in a key role. This political action comedy/drama/fairytale is probably my favorite film of the year (though, admittedly, it was a small pool to draw from).

The new season of the Netflix show “Master of None,” co-created and run by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, improves upon an already outstanding debut season. It has the confidence to allow Ansari’s character to become more of a jerk, taking his family and religion for granted and pursuing a married woman — and thus producing more pathos and tension without ever slipping into “anti-hero” territory that glorifies the behavior. And it’s also more bold in how it centers characters of color and the issues they face. (Kelvin Yu, Clem Cheung, Ravi Patel and Aparna Nancherla, among others, got strong turns.)

On The CW, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” starring Vincent Rodriguez III and featuring Rene Gube, Amy Hill, Parvesh Cheena and Eugene Cordero in supporting roles, continues to crank out really funny, smart, and often surprisingly transgressive, musical comedy.

And other shows might not feature APIs prominently in their cast, but feature them in key roles behind the scenes. For instance, a large part of what makes “Atlanta,” the Donald Glover show that cleaned up at the Emmys, so engaging is the distinct (though somewhat indebted to David Lynch) atmosphere that Hiro Murai brings to the episodes he directs (seven out of 10 in the first season).

(For that matter, we’ve seen APIs take more prominent roles in media criticism, as well. Emily Yoshida, easily one of the best writers/thinkers on art and culture, who is also mind-boggling good at Twitter, seems to have bylines everywhere all of a sudden.)

And while over the past year or so, it’s lagged behind television, mainstream cinema is finally starting to put Asian faces in the spotlight.

REPRESENTATION AND MORE — John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran. photo courtesy of Lucasfilm

The new “Star Wars” film, “The Last Jedi,” is the first in the series proper to have an Asian person in a lead role — something that is long overdue given how deeply influenced the series is by Asian martial arts, religion and cinema. Kelly Marie Tran plays Rose, an immediate sensation among fans, and the character who, debatably, puts one of the film’s key themes into words.

Meanwhile, Hollywood seems to finally have started to take the “whitewashing” of roles that could go to Asian actors seriously. White actor Ed Skrein stepped down from the role of Daimio in the new comic book movie “Hellboy” because the character was Asian in the source material. Daniel Dae Kim has since been cast in the role (and Skrein has become friends with Kim and several other API actors as a result of his doing the right thing). (Kim, meanwhile, joined Grace Park in leaving the immensely popular “Hawaii Five-O” earlier this year, because they wouldn’t accept being paid less than the show’s white stars any longer.)

But while the actions of conscientious actors are important and inspiring, it will likely be cold hard cash that will put an end to “white-washing.” The indispensable writer Jeff Yang crunched the numbers and found that, over the past decade, movies that whitewashed characters largely lost money. And I think this suggests something that is critical we remain clear-eyed about: We’re winning the culture war. We’re going to continue seeing more and more representation of people of color, women, and disabled people in mainstream entertainment media.

While racist reactionaries are getting louder, more violent and (due to gerrymandering and electoral college-ing) more politically powerful, they are losing these cultural battles that serve as their rallying points. Our dollars are stronger than theirs, which is why their boycotts are comically unsuccessful and largely just force the protestors to abstain from food, products, and pop culture they would otherwise enjoy in a desperate attempt to “trigger the libs.”

Being clear-eyed about this means being undeterred and remaining optimistic. And this pop culture stuff is important. For instance, pop culture narratives and news media narratives about North Korea weave together to obscure the country’s history, and the U.S. and Japan’s role in its current problems, and instead direct our attention to how “crazy” leadership is over there, making a potential war seem justified, if not inevitable. (There’s an excellent episode of the podcast, “Citations Needed,” about this.)

But being clear-eyed also means recognizing the limits of pop culture as political action. Issues of media representation impact all API people. But for many, particularly low-income, undocumented, queer and trans people or otherwise marginalized APIs, its far from the only issue we need to worry about.

Still, we should favor our victories where we can find them. We spent the year watching Trump run headfirst into what were believed to be rock-solid walls of political norms and continuously burst through them at breakneck speed, like a less subtle Kool-Aid Man.

(And watching the GOP frantically trying to pick the pockets of anyone caught in the rubble.) The dust will not settle for quite some time. While it might be a decade before we are really able to assess how good or bad 2017 was for the world overall, it was a pretty great year for Asian American pop culture. And in times like these, that counts for a lot.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at nichibei.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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