BY: MANSI MAMIDI, CONTRIBUTOR
Within the past two years, Hollywood has begun to turn its focus toward movies starring minority groups. Blockbusters like Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Moonlight (2016) prominently feature LGBTQ+ relationships, while movies like BlacKkKlansman (2018), Black Panther (2018) ,and Get Out (2017) star African Americans as protagonists. The release and success of these movies has proven to be a win not only for Hollywood, but also for the American public.
Now, Asian representation has swept into theaters with the release of Crazy Rich Asians, the first American movie with an all Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
The movie tells the story of Rachel Chu, a professor at NYU, who attends a wedding with her boyfriend, Nick Young, in his home country of Singapore. First, Rachel is shocked that Nick books first class tickets for their flight. He then reveals that his family is “comfortable”. Rachel later realizes just how rich the Young family is at a party they throw, where Nick’s mother Eleanor takes a quick disliking to Rachel due to a few faux pas. As the movie progresses, Rachel is belittled by those around her in a number of ways, and, once Nick proposes to her, she must come to a decision about what do to about his family.
Just an Ordinary Rom-Com?
This movie isn’t particularly special and is far from dealing with a completely brand new topic; it’s a rather run-of-the-mill story in terms of romantic comedies. All the typical characters are there: the level-headed female protagonist, a quirky best friend, the love interest who’s trying his best, and the mother-in-law sent from the underworld.
However, that in and of itself is the beauty of this movie. Asian characters don’t have to be warriors like Mulan, martial arts masters like Jackie Chan ,or stunningly attractive agents like Lucy Liu (though they can be, if they so desire). They can also be normal, everyday people simply existing in a diverse society. Asian-Americans can star in something as mundane as a romantic comedy without bearing a stark similarity to ethnic stereotypes or strictly making their character about their ethnicity. This type of normalcy being portrayed by actors of color finally provides a segue into accurately shaping how we, as Americans, see those around us.
This is not to say the movie did well based solely on representation; an astronomical part of the success Crazy Rich Asians was the talent and value of the actors. Constance Wu’s Rachel is lovable, modest, and sensible, while Michelle Yeoh is perfect as the overbearing mother-in-law, creating a character we love to hate. Yeoh’s performance is flawless as the classic antagonist persona, making Rachel’s life miserable with carefully calculated comments and quips, even hiring a private investigator to determine Rachel’s lineage. Awkwafina plays the quirky best friend, Goh Peik Lin, offering Rachel advice and consolation as she makes her mind up about her boyfriend’s family. The cast contains a multitude of other Asian actors from successful shows, including Harry Shum, Jr. of Glee and Shadowhunters and Ken Jeong from The Hangover and Community.
However, not everyone is happy with the casting. The entirety of the cast is of East Asian descent, which some have felt doesn’t accurately represent Singapore. Traditionally, the country is also comprised of Indians, Malays, and other ethnic groups. The privilege and dominance of those of Chinese descent is akin to that of European descended individuals in the United States; as a result, some controversy has arisen, with some believing that, as a movie with minority representation as its tagline, CRA should have included all Asian ethnic groups.
In addition, not everyone in the cast is of pure Chinese descent. Henry Golding, who plays Nick Young, is half English and half Malaysian; Constance Wu, who plays Rachel, is Taiwanese; Sonoya Mizuno, who plays the fiance of Nick’s friend, is half Japanese, a quarter English and a quarter Argentinian… and the list goes on. Certain viewers have criticized the movie for having non-Chinese actors and actresses portray ethnically Chinese characters, likening it to a type of white-washing in its own right, since the presence of any Asian descent at all seems to be seen by Hollywood as “Asian enough” to play an Asian role.
A Step in the Right Direction
However, a movie that highlights representation isn’t required to fix all issues with minority representation, especially if that movie is a lighthearted romantic comedy. It simply allows for the conversation to start, for more minority roles to be given, and for a large problem to be slowly fixed. Additionally, highlighting and making issue of the cast’s respective ethnic backgrounds only exacerbates the issue of representation. There really isn’t a parameter with which to deem people “Asian enough” or “not Asian enough.” Crazy Rich Asians is a movie about Asians who have absurd amounts of money, not Crazy Rich Chinese People Who Are of Only Chinese Descent. The ability to cast any type of Asian into a role that requires an Asian person to play it allows for actors truly fit for the role to portray it. Ethnicity matters when it comes to casting characters who are canonically supposed to be of a certain race, but it shouldn’t dominate every other aspect.
As Crazy Rich Asians continues to dominate the box office, despite any conflict or controversy, it presents a definitive statement to Hollywood: minority representation sells too.
(Image Credits: Warner Bros)