(Note: See the April 1 Rafu for more on today’s topic.)
Compared with newspapers, things move fast in this Internet age. An entire cycle of birth, life and death — or in this case, publication, outrage and apology — can happen in a week.
In newspapers, things are more leisurely, even though the word “news” comes from “new.” For example, about a month ago, I wrote a column here in The Rafu about the TV side of Hollywood finally appearing to embrace diversity, following the movie side dropping the ball with the Academy Awards and the purported shut out of “Selma” and its mostly black talent in the major categories , including acting.
(BTW, I purposely used “black” instead of “African American” since “Selma’s” lead actor, David Oyelowo, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is actually a British national of African heritage.)
But that was all a lead-in to me writing about actress Brooke Ishibashi getting her big TV break in the pilot for NBC’s “People Are Talking.” This after a season that, on TV, saw “Empire,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” — shows that featured mostly black talent in the first two examples and mostly Asian American talent in the third — finding critical and commercial success.
All of which comes after years — decades, actually — of pressure and cajoling by watchdog groups from black, Latino and Asian American communities to include more than just white folks in TV shows (and movies). I jokingly wrote: “You might even say that in TV now, the timing is right if you ain’t white.” Finally, the message was getting through to casting directors, production companies, agents, even the networks themselves: Being non-white is not a liability when casting or producing TV shows.
When an entertainment-industry website wrote about essentially the same thing (but without the focus on just one beneficiary of this change) and with what was perceived as a more negative spin, the changes alluded to didn’t sit well in all of Hollywood, at least according to the feature-y article that appeared March 24 on entertainment industry news website Deadline.com, which committed the cyber-equivalent of hitting a hornet’s nest — or is WASP nest more ironically apt in this case? — with a fungo bat via Nellie Andreeva’s “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings — Or Too Much of a Good Thing?”
(The headline has now been changed to “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings” but the article appears to be intact, along with all the comments that followed it. You can read the article at http://tinyurl.com/qzycrcm — and for the record, Dan Mayeda of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition sent me his group’s response to the Deadline.com article.)
By far, the worst thing about it was its original headline. But while the article’s intention was no doubt not to be offensive, some of its premise was really off-putting. Take a look at this excerpt:
“A lot of what is happening right now is long overdue. The TV and film superhero ranks have been overly white for too long, workplace shows should be diverse to reflect workplace in real America, and ethnic actors should get a chance to play more than the proverbial best friend or boss.
“But, as is the case with any sea change, some suggest that the pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal.”
To me, that second paragraph’s second sentence is troubling. Historic and institutional racism for decades — since the beginning of the film and TV mediums, actually — was what eventually created the concept of color-blind casting, so that a part that wasn’t, for instance, specifically written for a black, a Latino, a woman, etc., could go to someone who was.
That’s because, for better or worse, the default depiction of an American has been and continues to be some variant of “white,” whether it’s someone whose ancestry is white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Scottish, even Italian or Jewish. So, “color-blind” casting was not for the sake of diversity alone or inclusion alone, but because it just often reflected reality, a reality that TV (and movies) often overlooked.
So when we have a rare period in which roles were calling specifically for something outside the default, say, an Asian American woman like in the aforementioned “People Are Talking,” a part that opened a door for Brooke Ishibashi — now the concept of color-blind casting is being wielded as an argument to include more white actors?! No wonder people who read Andreeva’s article — including white people — were upset.
On balance, though, much of the article is OK. Also, I worked with Nellie Andreeva at the The Hollywood Reporter and I can say pretty confidently that while she is Bulgarian, she’s not bigoted nor biased.
So, in Internet-time, the article was published, the outrage arrived and that was followed by an online apology (read it at http://tinyurl.com/qb7wqwg), all in the course of about a week.
Meantime, back to diversity and Hollywood movies, and on the heels of the Deadline.com brouhaha, the April 3, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly has, on page 34 and 35, a centerfold photo of the cast of the upcoming “Furious 7” motion picture, accompanied with the text: “This Is What America Looks Like,” with a asterisk asking, “So why don’t our movies?”
Good to know that this topic is so much in the spotlight now, even though it’s something that this column has harped on for more than 20 years.
Still, I personally found that EW article lost some punch by not including, either in the text or in the photo, actor Sung Kang, past director Justin Lin or “Furious 7” helmer James Wan.
Holly Yasui Dept.: Last time out I wrote that I would try to write more about an upcoming documentary on the late Minoru Yasui by his daughter, Holly Yasui. We finally were able to talk via Skype but it was late for inclusion this time around.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.