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Breaking the other color line: Asian representation in Hollywood is at a crossroads

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(CW) Kimberley French; Kurt Iswarienkio/ABC; Jordin Althaus/Hulu; Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.; K.C. Bailey/Netflix; Bob D'Amico/ABC

With Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None on TV and the hit book Crazy Rich Asians and a live-action adaptation of Mulan heading to the big screen, is Hollywood on the verge of a breakthrough, or is this yet another blip? Entertainment Weekly looks into the state of Asian representation this week, beginning with this story, a version of which appears in the latest issue of EW, on newsstands now. Buy it here or subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos.

You know a movement is real when it lands its own hashtag. #StarringJohnCho, the social-media campaign “that literally shows you what it would look like if today’s Hollywood blockbusters cast an Asian-American actor — specifically, John Cho — as their leading man,” has yet to be realized. But that might be about to change. In October, Disney announced a live-action Mulan adaptation for a fall 2018 release and vowed to cast a Chinese actress as the eponymous heroine. (Sony has a competing Mulan project in the works, too.) Two weeks later, Warner Bros. picked up Crazy Rich Asians — based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestseller about wealthy Chinese families living in Singapore — with plans for an all-Asian cast. “Diversity is good business,” says Greg Silverman, Warner Bros.’ president of creative development and worldwide production. “It really is.” If these films prove him right, could Asian erasure in Hollywood be, well, erased?

Ming-Na Wen, star of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the voice of Mulan in the 1998 Disney animated film, thinks it could — but she’s not getting her hopes up yet. “When I started in the business, there was this whole thing about wanting to broaden horizons and do color-blind casting,” she says. “I benefited from it, but the momentum of that fell by the wayside. I feel so disheartened sometimes when these questions are still being asked 30 years later.”

There’s plenty of reason to feel disheartened. Few Hollywood films have featured all-Asian principal casts since the first to do so, 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, which included Wen herself. And despite the buzz this year over the need for diversity in TV and film (see: #OscarsSoWhite), Asian actors continue to be underrepresented in leading roles. A recent study by the University of Southern California found that only 3.9 percent of characters in 2015’s 100 highest-grossing films were Asian, and none were leads. Add in a recent spate of films that put white actors in roles originally written as Asian characters (e.g., Scarlett Johansson in next year’s Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in this year’s Doctor Strange) — and Hollywood’s tendency to anchor Asian stories with white heroes (Matt Damon in next year’s The Great Wall), and it’s no surprise that Asian actors feel ignored. 

Real gains have been made of late, though. TV series including Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat have wowed critics, and new fall shows, like ABC’s Designated Survivor and NBC’s The Good Place, count multiple Asian actors in their core casts. On the big screen, a new class of actors are enjoying high-profile roles: November’s teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen spotlights Asian-Canadian actor Hayden Szeto; Warner Bros.’ upcoming Ocean’s 8 will feature Asian-American rapper-actress Awkwafina; and the Star Wars universe boasts Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Riz Ahmed in Rogue One, as well as newcomer Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: Episode VIII. Additionally, Disney promised to cast a Chinese love interest for Mulan after the Twitter hashtag #MakeMulanRight led to a petition that has garnered more than 19,000 signatures. 

“Hollywood listens to money and to controversy,” says Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2), who’s directing Crazy Rich Asians. Finding an all-Asian cast requires more time and effort, he says, but failure is not an option. “The people have created a wave of controversy to wake up Hollywood, and now we have to execute.” Blaming the lack of bankable Asian stars doesn’t play anymore. “The industry realizes that they can’t keep saying, ‘Oh, nobody’s out there,'” says casting director Julia Kim. “That is such an antiquated excuse.” 

Some upcoming projects have already made questionable casting choices — Netflix’s Japanese manga-based Death Note will star white actors Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley — but increasingly the Asian community is holding the industry accountable. “Every so often, Hollywood stumbles and goes back to their old habits,” Wen says. “The only thing you can do as a patron, especially if you’re Asian, is to not pay to support something like that. That’s all the power a fan can really have in the end…. If you’re frustrated, do something about it.”