2017 was an insane year. Psycho-in-Chief (his name does not deserve to be mentioned in these pages) and his racist Repuglican [sic]supporters and talking heads said outrageous things about the Asian/Pacific Islander community that raised our blood pressure (why bother recounting all of them here?).
After the fall of Harvey Weinstein in October, one Hollywood star/producer/director/actor/executive after another was accused of past sexual offenses and their projects/deals/contracts were dropped/canceled/erased in shockingly quick reaction.
Asian actresses were among those preyed upon by Weinstein. Olivia Munn finally set the record straight years after director Brett Ratner characterized her as promiscuous, insisting they had never had a sexual or romantic relationship, and that he sexually harassed her for years. When she and other actresses went on record with The Los Angeles Times, Warner Brothers dropped his projects, pledged to not renew his production deal with them, and forced him to give up his prestigious office on the lot.
Scott Brunton, a former model, accused George Takei of drugging him at the actor’s apartment in 1981 and trying to take sexual advantage of him. Though the iconic actor denied even knowing Brunton, his excuses for remarks he made on the Howard Stern show in mid-October (he admitted to using strong arm techniques to sway timid would-be lovers and there were awkward silences when asked point blank if he’d ever come on to men who didn’t return his affections) led to uneasiness. Takei wanted us to believe that for the past 27 years — whenever he’d been on the show — he had not been himself but playing “a naughty gay Grandpa” caricature and that the October interview had also been “a skit.” In the end, because no one else accused Takei of similar improprieties, there was no major fallout, though Densho dropped a Takei-narrated video from their website and some advertisers quietly dropped support of the actor’s Facebook page.
Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park left “Hawaii Five-O” after seven seasons because they weren’t getting equal pay to their white co-stars, netting an encouraging amount of support from the general public, though it was clear to anyone watching the show that they were always third and fourth on the totem pole and even lower considering the amount of white recurring guest characters who often got more screen time, which plagued the series’ early years.
Hollywood continued to “white-wash” films by casting white actors to star in projects based on Asian characters. Like most from the recent past (“Last Airbender,” “Aloha,” “Ghost in the Shell”), they lost money.
The laughable insertion of Matt Damon in to a movie about medieval China (“The Great Wall”) was rewarded by losing millions of dollars. “Birth of the Dragon, with a $31 million budget focusing not on martial arts legend Bruce Lee but a fictitious white man coming on to an Asian woman (again?!) justifiably flopped with $7.1 million in receipts.
The luxury of having two Asian American family shows on at the same time sadly ended in May when “Dr. Ken,” starring Ken Jeong and Suzy Nakamura, was canceled. And though two movies featured Asian men in relationships with white women got critical acclaim (“Sophie and the Rising Sun” and “Columbus,” starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) no one bothered to see them in theaters.
However, Kelly Marie Tran got Asian Americans excited as the heroic Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is on its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing movie of all time (“The Force Awakens” sits on top, naturally), and there’s Oscar talk for Golden Globe-nominated actress Hong Chau for her performance in “Downsizing,” though its bad performance at the box office doesn’t help her odds.
Here, in chronological order, are my takes on some of the significant issues, people, and events that impacted Asian Americans during the calendar year.
January: A-Hole Award to Steve Harvey, who mocked an old self-help book for Asian men wanting to date white women and laughed and laughed at the notion that women of any race would find Asian men attractive (any of the 2 billion on the planet). The fallout from that, meeting with the Psycho-in-Chief, and a lawsuit from a former assistant led Harvey to hire a PR expert, but none of his business partners cut their ties with the blowhard.
February: Best Expression Following a Performance on the Oscars Award to Auli’i Cravalho, who sang the Academy Award-nominated song “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana” amid distracting dancers swirling blue bedsheets behind her only to get hit in the head by one of them. After the powerhouse vocalist finished the tune, the bug-eyed smile on her face seemed to say, “OMG! I can’t believe he hit me in the head!” or “I can’t believe I managed to continue singing after that!” In any case, she left this Hawaiian feeling proud.
Gone Too Soon Award to the Kaeru Kid, aka Glenn Nakadate, for his wanderlust spirit and columns chronicling countries I’ll never see. Through his work and communications with me over the years, I’d always assumed he was a 30-something and was shocked to realize in one of his last submissions that he’d fought in the Korean War. In December, he told me he was 81 and revealed he was suffering from an autoimmune disease and was on his last legs. He was young at heart and deserved to live a lot longer. Farewell, Kiddo.
March: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire! Award to Scarlett Johansson, who lied when she told the media she would never play someone of another race “obviously.” She obviously did. At the end of “Ghost in the Shell,” she meets her mother and learns she was Motoko Kusanagi. Despite being one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, the public was smarter. Paramount admitted potential viewers did more online research than usual, found the accusations of “white-washing,” and stayed away in droves. The Huffington Post predicted the $110 million film would lose $60 million.
April: Hypocrite Award to Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang, who in a Sunday Calendar discussion with the more “awoke” Jen Yamato, gave lip service against the white-washing trend in Hollywood. Nice try. Re-read his reviews of those films. He made excuses for Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in “Dr. Strange,” didn’t even mention that every major Japanese character in “Kubo and the Two Strings” was voiced by a white actor, and even called Scarlet Johansson’s performance in “Ghost in the Shell” “near perfect.” On top of that, he denied Matt Damon was “really a white savior” in “The Great Wall” even when three Chinese characters literally thanked him for saving their lives!
Yamato asked, “Which film critics are holding studios to greater standards, and which of them simply pass the buck on accountability onto someone else’s think pieces?” You were looking right at him, Jen.
PR Blunder of the Year Award to United Airlines and CEO Oscar Munoz, who at first justified the horrible roughing up of passenger Dr. David Dao, asserting he had been “disruptive and belligerent.” Later video proved Dao had been anything but, rightfully and calmly saying he would not leave the plane since he’d paid for his seat. Security was the one who acted “disruptive and belligerent,” attacking him, hitting his head on an armrest, which led to him bleeding, as they dragged him down the aisle to the horror of fellow passengers, who voiced their outrage.
Munoz had just received the “Communicator of the Year Award” by PR Week. You can’t make this stuff up. Somehow, he managed to keep this job. A second injustice.
May: Vanguard Award to Ken Jeong, who, as one of the executive producers of “Dr. Ken,” went out of his way to promote Asian American men as sexy, romantic considerations and created a loving atmosphere for all, including gays. His sitcom was canceled because of falling ratings, despite a letter to the president of ABC from yours truly asking for a renewal.
Bakatare Award to Zach McGowan, the Irish American actor who agreed to play real-life Hawaiian hero Ben Kanahele in the upcoming Niihau movie. When Twitter and other social media erupted in anger, his brothers made it worse, trying to rationalize why his casting was a non-issue as he’d played Native Americans in the past (uh, two wrongs don’t make a right). One also cried that the producers of the movie had been “cyberbullied” into silence.
June: Hypocrite II Award to Bill Maher, who angered the public by making a joke saying he was a “house nigger” on his “Real Time with Bill Maher” talk show. In my 2001 debate with him and Sarah Silverman on “Politically Incorrect,” he asserted that non-blacks could use “the N-word’ because it was used in “every song.” Despite Anne Marie Johnson and I arguing that they couldn’t because it was still a slur, he wouldn’t hear of it. After guests pulled out of “Real Time,” Maher had to appear contrite, and he invited three black panelists to tell him he was wrong, this time, taking his punishment without arguing back, as he did in defending Silverman’s use of “chinks” in a joke (he even called me “the head chink” of MANAA).
When I’d mentioned Kenneth Chiu had recently been stabbed to death by a white man who wrote “chink” on his family’s car, Maher shot back, “And we’re talking about a lone nut! And to indict the entire society for that is disingenuous!” But when Symone Sanders (former press secretary to Bernie Sanders) reminded Maher that LeBron James had recently been called a “nigger” (actually, that slur was spray-painted on the gate outside his home), the comedian didn’t dismiss that as the actions of “a lone nut.”
Vanguard II Award to director John Avildsen for insisting on casting Pat “Noriyuki” Morita as Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” creating one of the most iconic and positive Asian American characters of all time. Though the public attributed some of the Miyagi-isms (e.g., catching flies with chopsticks, crane stance, “wax on, wax off”) to “orientalisms,” the drunk “internment” scene was the best scene ever played by any Asian American actor, and the sensei was more popular than the title character himself. The gifted director (Academy Award for “Rocky”) died at 81 of pancreatic cancer.
Rebels Without a Clue Award to The Slants, the Seattle Asian American band who believed so much that their name (which could be used as a racial slur) should be copyrighted so they could sell their merchandising, took their case to the Supreme Court and won. Great. That pretty much rendered dead the movement to get the Washington Redskins to change their name. Let’s see how you feel when the N-word starts appearing on T-shirts too. You’ve had more former members (9) than current ones (4). Work more on keeping the band from breaking up. On second thought, don’t.
August: Hypocrite III/With Heroes Like You, Who Needs Enemies? Award to Masi Oka, one of the executive producers of “Death Note,” the Japanese project he brought to Netflix without any significant Asian characters. His excuse? Foreign Asians couldn’t speak “the perfect English.” Right, just like you. So the thought of hiring Asian American actors never crossed your mind? Oka said he wanted to be a champion of diversity, yet it was clear that unlike his Hiro Nakamura character, he wasn’t a hero we could count on.
Turning Point? Award to Ed Skrein, who, after receiving flack for accepting the role of Japanese American Ed Daimio in the upcoming “Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen,” quit, telling the producers and Lionsgate that they should get an actual Asian American to play the part (wow, what a concept!), which went to Daniel Dae Kim. Will other white actors follow suit in the future by researching the offered roles, and upon learning they were Asian, turn them down?
September: Hypocrite IV Award to Daniel Dae Kim, one of the executive producers of “The Good Doctor,” who adopted it from a South Korean drama, for not casting Asian Americans in enough significant roles in a hospital show set in San Jose. It made his speeches about Asian American actors needing to be treated equally sound hollow when he was in a position to help his own community and instead went along with a cast that included three black doctors, one Hispanic, and no Asian ones. Showrunner David Shore, who’d created another medical drama, ”House,” didn’t include Asian regulars until the fourth season. You should’ve known better. And in showing there is no justice, “The Good Doctor” is the most-watched series on network television.
At the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theater benefit, Kim said, “When you’re in a position like I was, when you have the luxury of saying ‘No…’ when your decisions affect everyone, from the people at your level to the people just starting out, if you can get an opportunity that helps those that come after you, I think there is no choice but to make that choice.” OK, so why didn’t you?
Desperation Award to CBS and the producers of “Hawaii Five-0” for adding Dennis Chun, Taylor Wily and Kimee Balmilero to the opening credits of the show knowing full well the few seconds they appeared on past seasons (if they appeared at all) wouldn’t increase significantly and they were only place-holders to create the illusion that the show — with the exits of Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park and Masi Oka — wasn’t just full of white, black and Latino regulars. Even the episode that introduced new regular Beulah Koale was moved up a week.
October: One Bad Turn Deserves Another Award to CBS and executive producer Peter Lenkov, who resisted reflecting the ethnic population of Hawaii (uh, not white and black people) for years on “Five-0” and had to be nudged every step of the way by MANAA and the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition until he began getting it right in 2016. The network offered him the job of rebooting “Magnum P.I.,” the ’80s series starring Tom Selleck that was infamous for its lack of significant Asian/Pacific Islander characters (and no regulars). Can we expect any better in 2018?
Bakatare II Award to Houston Astros player Yuli Gurriel for pulling his eyes back and calling Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish “Chinito” (Little Chinese boy”) during the World Series. The Cuban said he meant nothing racial even while admitting he knew people in Japan (where he played for years) found the word offensive. The Major League Baseball commissioner delayed a five-game suspension until next season, and if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the Astros went on to win the title.
You Call Yourself a Journalist? Award to Los Angeles Times sportswriter Dylan Hernandez, who said as someone half Japanese/half Mexican, he grew up with “Chinito” and found nothing wrong with it, irresponsibly neglecting to mention the “pulling of the eyes” gesture that accompanied it, which would make it offensive no matter what word was used.
November: Bachi ga Ataru! Award to Matt Lauer for being fired from the “Today” show after numerous women came forward detailing his sexual offenses over the years. The Internet went crazy assuming Ann Curry was laughing for hours. After all, she’d been unfairly ousted in 2011 when ratings fell (you were the host, she was secondary to you and studies showed the audience preferred her over you but the boys’ club at NBC threw her under the bus anyway because they’d just signed you to a multi-year. multi-million-dollar contract). Fans wanted her to return as host, but that hasn’t happened.
General: APB on Missing Asians Award to “Saturday Night Live.” Where do I begin? Yes, you let Aziz Ansari host in January, but one of his pet peeves — non-Asians playing Asians — was surprisingly missing from both his monologue and skits. SNL’s “Weekend Update” also failed to ridicule “white-washed” movies. Maybe because they didn’t want to offend Scarlet Johansson, who hosted in May and later returned for cameos? Good job, “Weekend Update” co-host Colin Jost, who had a fling with her that led to a relationship by June.
In May, still lacking an Asian cast member after 42 years (one quarter Asian’s not good enough), production designer Akira Yoshimura had to play Mr. Sulu in a “Star Trek” skit just as he’d done off and on dating back to 1976! Yes, the White House skits were hilarious. But come on, your racism is obvious.
With this column, I once again take my leave from these pages until the paper is able to pay its columnists (or my “anonymous benefactor” once again waves the magic wand). Will “Into the Next Stage” end with this installment or continue into its 26th year?
In any case, thank you for your support, and if you’re interested in doing more than must reading about the insane ways Asian Americans are denied equal opportunities in the media and actually want to gain satisfaction in doing something about it, come to monthly MANAA meetings, which are held on the third Thursdays at the former Maryknoll in Little Tokyo at 7:30 p.m. Email me for more information.
’Til then, keep your eyes and ears open and Happy New Year.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.