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The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Addresses Industry Xenophobia with "The Serious Business of Diversity" Panel

In response to February's Oscar ceremony hosted by Chris Rock, the sixth edition of C3 (Conference for Creative Content) at the 32nd Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival added a free panel: "Yellow Nerds and Dongs @ The Oscars or Can't You Take a Joke?: The Serious Business of Diversity in Hollywood." Presented at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on Saturday, April 25, the panel included actor/activist George Takei, producer Janet Yang, documentary producer/director Arthur Dong, L.A. Times writer Marc Bernardin, Manager of Creative Talent Development & Inclusion at Disney Emerlynn Lampitoc and co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition Daniel Mayeda.

Moderator David Magdael, co-director of the film festival, commented that this is a "pivotal moment" and that Asian Americans are "just tired; we can't be the butt of jokes any more." Although there had been previous complaints, Asian Americans must now find "strength in numbers" because "if we don't speak up, we will be erased."

Yang ("The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Disney High School Musical: China") and Dong ("The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor" and "Hollywood Chinese") were two Academy members who spearheaded the letter campaign to the Academy after the Oscars. Yang noted that "social media is our ally." The post-Oscar letter was "a light bulb moment in [her] life" and can be a "defining moment."

Dong, who came up with the panel title, added that he has been watching the Oscars for over 60 years. "It is still something I've always looked forward to." Yet this year, when he watched with his 11-year-old boy, he was glad that he didn't have to explain the accountant and child labor joke because his son, didn't quite get it. However, when their surname was later used as a joke by Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ali G), that was a different matter ("How come there is no Oscar for them very hard-working little yellow people with tiny dongs? You know—the Minions").

As Academy members, Dong felt, "this is our organization. We know everything that gets out is controlled ... How did it happen? We're members and we have a right to know." Reaching out to other members wasn't easy because the Academy is divided into branches. "This might be the first time Academy members tried to identify us as a group." In all, he and others were able to identify and contact 55 Asian American members of the Academy. Of that, only 25 signed the letter.

Yang noted that in the letter, they approached their Academy as colleagues with very strong points. They wanted to know "what concrete steps would the Academy take" to prevent this from happening in the future. According to Yang and Dong, the original intent was to present this as a private membership matter, but the letter was leaked to Variety.

While some have portrayed the American stereotype of Asians as "relatively bland," Takei noted a stereotype of studious and inscrutable can "overnight become dangerous and life-changing," citing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

At that time, the Attorney General of California, Earl Warren noted, "because we have had no sabotage and no fifth column activity ... that means that none have been planned for us ... This is the most ominous sign in our whole situation."

Remembering this, Takei commented, "absence of evidence was the evidence." Because of his experience living in the internment camps, he said he would always fight demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes to the end.

Bernardin wrote a commentary on the continued whitewashing of Asian characters, ("Hollywood's Glaring Problem: White Actors Playing Asian Character"), providing an emotional analogy:

Look at it this way: Take two children. One of them has 1,000 action figures, while the other has just one. If you take a single figure away from that first child, it is possible, if not probable, that he or she won't even notice it's gone. And even if he or she did complain, any sane person would explain to that child the virtues of sharing, of generosity.

Now, if you turned to that child with the solitary toy and tried to take it away, that child would be devastated. That toy might well be his or her lifeline to imagination, to hope, to the idea that play could unlock something within that he or her didn't even know existed.

There are so few roles specifically written for ethnic Asians in Hollywood, that it is when one goes to a white actor, it is soul-crushing.

Bernardin, who is black, said that having Chris Rock as the host as part of "OscarsSoWhite Part II" made him swell with pride, but ultimately, he felt that Rock dropped the ball by not only making "ill-advised and ill-conceived jokes," but because those jokes weren't even funny. On Hollywood movie makers, Bernardin added, "It is damaging in a fundamental way ... that the only color they care about is green."

"It was a really lazy, stupid stereotype," Mayeda commented. "The telecast was the second time, this issue was going to be raised" but he felt "it was pretty much black and white."

Some studios are more pro-active. Lampitoc noted that Disney decided to use "inclusion" instead of diversity because it is a more powerful world. Disney wants "authenticity" to tell "stories that no one else has." She explained: "We do track representation in the front of the camera and behind the camera. It's created a dialogue between executives."

Yang felt that with the growth of China, "we will definitely see the force of China." This is a large market and movies need to be made "accessible to their audiences." Chinese concerns have showed interest in buying studios.

Mayeda asserted that "doing the right thing isn't going to be enough [for executives]. We have to demonstrate that they can make more money by being diverse."

"That's the homework we have to do," Takei added. "We're a smaller minority; that puts the onus that much more [on us]."

The problem is that "America's amazing when it comes to xenophobia," Bernardin said. "It's like our superpower."

And that very superpower prevents ethnic Asian actors from playing roles with superpowers, and getting parts in American productions. Yang noted several Asian American men, such as Daniel Henney, are making careers in Asia. Henney was born in the U.S. to a Korean American mother and Irish American father, and originally spoke no Korean. He has been in Korean dramas, winning the 2007 Korean Association of Film Critics' Best New Actor award for "My Father." Henney also voiced Tadashi Hamada in Disney's "Big Hero 6." Yang felt it was "harder for male actors" and that because of the whitewashing, "these men could not be stars in America."

Yang concluded, "There is a community (of Asian Americans) and people are watching. We can prove that diversity sells." The panel agreed that there needs to be organized efforts made in the future through established channels and social media. 

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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