An important topic often discussed at the SDAFF and tackled by our various bloggers is the promulgation of Asian American stereotypes in American TV and film. In honor of the continuation of media accountability to this inescapable truth and the July 4 weekend, I’m posting an original article I wrote on this topic around July 4, 2005. It was written on assignment for Reuters. The day before the article was to be posted, Reuters pulled the article. So what happened? See if you can guess before you get to the end of the article.
Los Angeles, July 7, (Reuters) - In today's politically correct society, there's no way a Caucasian actor would be considered to portray Martin Luther King, Jr., so why was Caucasian actor Channing Tatum initially cast to play Genghis Khan in director Sergei Bodrov's US $12 million epic Mongol?
"I met many Asian-American actors," Bodrov told Reuters, "but honestly, I don't care to be politically correct, I care very much to make a good movie."
According to casting director Richard Pagano, Tatum is part Native American and that qualifies him as being associated with Mongolians saying, "There are rumors Khan had blue eyes."
Citing a similar example, the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese in the stage production of Miss Saigon (1989), George Takei of Star Trek fame told Reuters that the production later announced that Pryce was Eurasian to justify the casting.
"Putting down on the program he was Eurasian just doesn't do it," Takei says, "they'll come up with all sorts of nonsense and rationale for that kind of casting, but in this day and age it should no longer be acceptable."
Hollywood has often cast Caucasian actors for Asian characters: Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan; Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); Luis Rainer in The Good Earth (1937) and Tony Randall in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).
In fact, considered one of Hollywood greatest Hall of Shame films was John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror (1955) where while shooting in Utah, Wayne contracted cancer from fallout produced by nuclear tests at Yucca Flats in Nevada.
Veteran Asian-American actor/activist and former President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) Aki Aleong has personally ran into this problem.
"When I was up for the Sammy Lee story, a five-foot-three Korean-American and first diver to win two Olympic golds, the director told me I wasn't right for the role," he told Reuters, "they wanted a Robert Young type."
Star of TV's Marcus Welby, MD, Young was white, blue-eyed and over six feet tall.
Respected film critic Roger Ebert told Reuters, "These things occurred because the studios felt they needed established stars to drive the box office."
Takei explains that in the old days this is what was said but the reality is there were good Asian-American actors around to do these roles, but they were never given the chance.
"But now there are major Asian stars so this reason is no longer valid," Ebert says, "and audiences expect to see actors who match the ethnic identities of their roles."
"Furthermore, there was no reaction from the Asian American communities back then," Takei adds, "now this climate is changing."
Aleong points out that Caucasians playing Asians act with the perception of what they think Asians are and that this perpetuates the stereotype.
"I'm sick of the racism and stereotyping of Asian-Americans in entertainment," Aleong says, "I mean they'd never air episodes of Amos 'N' Andy."
He continues noting that skin-color and English unite African-Americans, Hispanics are Latino and have a common language, but Asian Americans are splintered into 15 major different cultures lumped in one group.
Furthermore, Asian Americans make up almost five percent of the nation's population and according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, their purchase power exceeds $296.4 billion annually, and that is expected to increase to $454.9 billion by 2007.
"Yet with all this financial power, the problem is that Asian-Americans are quite, peaceful, we don't riot or rock the boat," Aleong says, "we need radicalism, and leaders to unite us. This is why MANAA has been in existence for 11 years."
MANAA is a watchdog group that monitors stereotypical depiction of Asian Americans in entertainment and advocates the sensitive and positive portrayal of Asian Americans.
Pressure from the tireless efforts of activists like Aleong and MANAA, Mongol recently recast Khan with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.
Tatum's agent Louis Ward at Innovative Artists told Reuters, "Although Tatum was the director's first choice the financiers were keen to have an Asian play Khan."
"I give you my word, on my dying bed," Aleong blurts, "had Mongol come out with a Khan being Caucasian, we would have been on it like you have never seen before."
Back to today: Well Aleong didn’t have to organize any radical demonstrations, which undoubtedly would have been a very interesting event. As it turns out, I tracked down Bodrov in May 2005 location scouting in Kazakhstan. My polite barrage of questions touched a nerve. By the time I had finished my other interviews six weeks later and written the above supposed final draft, bar the last three paragraphs and the bold letter word in the opening line, Channing had been dropped and Tadanobu Asano was cast as Khan (yes that fast).
The article was axed because the angle was supposed to be about the furor of the Asian American cinema community up in arms about Channing being cast as Khan. However, because my interviews had influenced the cast change, regardless of some of my last minute changes trying to imply that MANAA had something to do with the change (of which they didn’t), Reuters did not want to come across like I had influenced the re-casting of Khan, which insiders knew that I had. As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story...good day.”