By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“What is race relations 2.0?” asked Korean American actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim. “What is being ahead of the curve?”
Those questions were just two of the many provocative and heartfelt statements made, from the online conference “VOICES: API Representation in Film & Media,” presented online on May 20. The conference, presented by Amazon Studios with the Producers Guild of America and Gold House, is available to watch at dei.amazonstudios.com.
Two Amazon employees introduced and moderated throughout: Latasha Gillespie, head of Global DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) for Amazon Studios, Prime Video, and the Internet Movie Database; and Albert Cheng, chief operating officer and co-head of Television, Amazon Studios.
After greetings from Gillespie and then Cheng—who noted that seeing George Takei on “Star Trek” was one of the very few positive Asian role models in media he grew up with, sociologist Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen presented on “The History of Anti-Asian Racism in Media, Up to Today.”
Yeun covered mostly Hollywood depictions of Asian-ness down the decades, with asides to note such breakthrough foreign films as Akira Kurosawa’s award-winning film “Rashomon” and Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy,” both from the 1950s.
She cautioned that though respect for Asian and Asian American performers is improving along some fronts,
Hollywood still demonstrates plenty of whitewashing and yellowface. She allowed that in the larger sense of things, actors should be allowed to play the parts they want to play—but so long as Asians are not allowed to play roles reserved for white actors, that artistic license only goes one way. She also brought up the power of social media, allowing communities to spread the word about worthy films, and coordinate to pack theaters.
Albert Cheng moderated the next panel, “Hollywood’s Complicity in Anti-Asian Racism & How Leaders Can Drive Change,” featuring Daniel Dae Kim, along with film producer Nina Yang Bongiovi and Sanjay Sharma, founder & CEO of Marginal Mediaworks and board chair of Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment.
Sharma, who recalled with a laugh the stresses of growing up Indian in America’s Deep South, recalled learning humor as a defusing ploy, “where running or fighting weren’t options… Hopefully there’s an awareness that that wasn’t right.”
Bongiovi stressed the importance of talking and liaising with Latinx and Black peers. Kim followed that up with the necessity of “being an ally,” responding to other minority communities in kind, as an important step to keep “moving the needle.”
Three 10-minute presentations on “Changing the Narrative” brought up three new faces. Comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu recalled that coming up through the ranks of standup comedy, he’d throw in stereotypical Indian humor—but after 9/11 and the subsequent wave of anti-Muslim hostility, he realized he couldn’t keep treading that path.
Film scholar and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu examined the long history of hypersexualing Asians in Western media. And Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas detailed his experience ‘jumping off a legal cliff,” when he publicly examined his own undocumented status in the United States.
A panel devoted to “API Representation on Screen” featured Sophia Ali and Stephanie Hsu from TV shows “The Wilds” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” respectively, casting director Julia Kim, and moderator Elaine Low from “Variety.”
Asked by Low which one single change they’d like to see regarding API screen representation, Kim challenged folks to “show up [and] go see these beautiful stories that deserve support.” Hsu wished for “artists and the industry alike [to] take more risk, push more boundaries.”
Ali dared to postulate a future without racial or cultural labels.
“Into the future… I just really want a time where people allow other people to be undefinable.”
Musical performances from AJ Rafael and Alyssa Navarro, and then Amber Liu, concluded the program.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.