Here’s why Crazy Rich Asians is so important, particularly to Asian-Americans, and this Asian-American in particular.
Imagine growing up and for the majority of your life never seeing a person who looked like you (let alone had a similar background) in a leading role in a movie or TV? Unless you’re a fellow minority it’s tough to imagine. Even amongst the minorities, Asian and Asian Americans trail behind Black representation on film considerably.
In the USC Annenberg study “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment” they found that regarding prevalence on screen: “Of those speaking or named characters with enough cues to ascertain race/ethnicity (n=10,444), 71.7% were White, 12.2% Black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern and 3.1% Other.”
I am someone who falls into that 5.1%. I’m of mixed heritage, half of which is Chinese. I grew up in the Bay Area, which is an incredibly diverse region. I was surrounded by people of all sorts of backgrounds, and I saw this reflected visually in the people around me. So while my everyday life was diverse, this wasn’t mirrored in the content I was watching.
Take animated films for an example, most children grow up on a steady diet of Disney films. Until the release of Mulan in 1998, there wasn’t a single princess who remotely resembled me. Halloween time was flooded with little girls running around dressed as Belle or Snow White, but that wasn’t going to be me.
Sure there was nothing to officially prohibit me from dressing up as a Belle or a Snow White. Well, nothing to prohibit me aside from my natural distaste for Disney princesses. Part of which was fueled by a sentiment I couldn’t have verbalized at the time - the resentment that none of them represented me whatsoever. The gender politics of Disney princesses is something I talk about extensively but that’s a story for another time. I will just note that I at least appreciate that if I HAD to be stereotyped as one Princess, that it is Mulan, as her plot line doesn’t revolve around trying to snag a prince, it’s about saving her entire country.
So aside from Mulan, for me, growing up there were only a few examples of Asian or Asian-American characters in media. There was George Takes as Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek, Trini the original Yellow Ranger and Jackie Chan. There were likely a few others but none come to mind at the time of writing this, and aside from Mulan, none were leading characters. Jackie Chan was a lead in China, but when he first started in the US he was not top billed.
At the time I didn’t have the words to articulate the frustration at the utter lack of seeing anyone who looked like me on screen. I just knew that something was off. Occasionally I’d see movies that featured predominantly Asian casts, however they were imports. They were honestly usually martial arts films, and while they were amazing in their own right, they didn’t speak to my cultural experience as an Asian American.
So when The Joy Luck Club came out I was likely too young to appreciate its value. As I learned more about film I realized what a rarity it was to have a story featuring Asian AMERICAN stories alongside Asian stories. A subtle level of ostracism starts to permeate your life when everything you watch doesn’t look like you. Or worse, in some cases you’re relegated to a gross stereotype that at best is valueless, at worst is offensive.
There have been projects in between. Margaret Cho’s short lived sitcom, All-American Girl, was an example of an Asian American lead. Fresh off the Boat of late has been holding down the forts on the television front. Yet on the big screen there’s a distinct lack of Asian/Asian-American representation in leading roles (and in supporting roles).
This all leads me to why Crazy Rich Asians is so important. There are cultural moments in it that are so beyond specific to the experience of an Asian-American (particularly one visiting Asia proper). The nuance of these moments help the entire film feel like a well rounded experience. The specificity is there in support of a story that is universal. No matter your race, orientation, or background you can still relate to the themes.
Audiences of non-white backgrounds sit through films featuring white casts and are perfectly capable of enjoying them, so it should come as no shock that Crazy Rich Asians absolutely has appeal to extended audiences.
Another thing about the film is, it is not the job of it to represent EVERY subset of Asian people. In fact attempting to do so probably would have been beyond detrimental. Going back to the value of specificity - if the movie had tried to shoehorn stories in just for the sake of representation it would have become a mess (think about how many types of Asian there are). By focusing in on the particular experience of the characters involved it really was able to shine.
It’s this sort of conscientiousness I want to see in all the movies I go to.
In the lead up to actually seeing the film I felt a sense of utter dread. I had enjoyed all 3 of Kevin Kwan’s books (the third one got a little bizarre for my taste) and as with any adaptation I had reservations. However the bigger fear was that the film wouldn’t be good, and as a result we wouldn’t get another Asian/ Asian-American lead film for another 25 years. The fact that so much rides on the success of ONE film is absurd. Much like how Black Panther and Wonder Woman had to prove within the superhero genre that yes, people WILL go see a film with a diverse or female lead, all the weight of the Asian world was falling on the shoulders of Crazy Rich Asians.
The relief upon seeing the film was monumental. Now I finally have something to point to and go actually “this is true to me.”
So thank you Jon M. Chu, Kevin Kwan, Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Sonoya Mizuno, Ken Jeong, Nico Santos, Jimmy O. Yang, and everyone else involved in the film. Thank you for making a great movie that tells my and many others’ tale. Now let’s not wait another 25 years for an Asian/Asian-American lead film.
The latest interviews, reviews, and opinions on film by Dana Han-Klein. Thoughts and opinions are entirely my own and not reflective of my employer or any third parties.