Crazy Rich Asians: Is This All Asian Cast a Watershed Moment for Hollywood?
You've seen this story before. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl isn't good enough for boy's family. The storyline may be a bit predictable—but the cast and setting are anything but. When they say this is a full Asian cast they weren't kidding. After the opening scene, the only non-Asian faces you see are relegated to a few background extras. Working staff. The roles usually reserved for Asians. In fact, if you're not paying attention (and searching like I was) you might not even notice.
When I asked my friend to go with me I told him this was my Black Panther. Admittedly I wasn't thrilled with the title of the movie (it's based on the book) because rich Asians perpetuate the model minority myth. It's called a myth for a reason—but back to the movie. A romantic comedy isn't exactly on the same level as super hero. Even so, I had heard it was pretty good and for reasons that should be fairly obvious—there was no way I wasn't going to support a movie with an all Asian cast.
The lack of representation of people of color (POC) on TV and in film is a real problem. Asian characters are few and far between, never the lead, and much of the time stereotypical. Doctor, scientist, Chinese restaurant owner—you get the picture. When I lived in Atlanta back in the late 80s and early 90s I did a bit of "modeling." I was constantly asked to wear my glasses and put in a white lab coat. Even after telling agents I grew up in Iowa with white parents I was asked if I could do an Asian accent. I never understood why I couldn't be cast as I was. Just a regular girl living life—who didn't have much of an affinity for math or science.
The issue isn't just about the lack of representation it's also about giving Asian roles to non-Asians. Emma Stone in Aloha. Tilda Swinson in Dr. Strange (which doesn't even address the possible whitewashing of Dr. Strange himself). Then there's Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park who left Hawaii 5-0 because of pay parity with the white actors. A show set in Hawaii. And the white actors are paid more than the Asian actors. Mull that over for a second. And then ask yourself why the reboot didn't cast Asian actors as the leads to begin with?
Who doesn't want to see someone who looks like themselves on television and in movies? We want to know we matter. We want to see ourselves valued and represented similarily to the every day lives we're leading. That's why I couldn't wait and saw Crazy Rich Asians on opening day. And I liked it. For what it was. A romantic comedy. A story based on a premise we've seen a million times. But this time the hoopla surrounding the movie isn't necessarily about the storyline. My friend said within a few minutes he wasn't really thinking about the people being Asian because he was drawn into the story. As romantic comedies go Crazy Rich Asians is way better than all the Nicholas Spark flicks since the Notebook. If you were paying attention you might learn a few things about Chinese culture and family tradition. You would also notice when it comes right down to it, most of the issues aren't exclusive to Asians but to human beings as a whole.
I know some people wish this history-making movie was more than a rom-com. It doesn't have the intellectual undertones of the 1993 release of Joy Luck Club (the last movie with an Asian cast). It's definitely no Black Panther. But you don't get much more mainstream than a romantic comedy. Let me say that again. Mainstream. There is a movie with an all Asian cast that is basically mainstream. It's not artsy. It's not historical (at least not the storyline). There was not one scene that included martial arts. No one running around in a lab coat. No embarrassing Asian stereotypes. To top it off there were Asian people speaking with a multitude of accents including Cantonese, British, AND American.
Mainstream means wider appeal. I was one of maybe 3-4 Asians (yes, I looked and counted) at my weekday mid-afternoon screening in a theater that was about half full. I could tell the audience was enjoying the film. As was I. The story has all the elements you want to see in a romantic comedy. All of that speaks well for the appeal and draw of the movie. As of midday Friday on opening weekend it's on track to take in $20 million and take the number one spot at the box office. So yes. You should definitely go see what all the buzz is about for yourself. If a mainstream type movie with an all Asian cast is successful there will be no excuse for limiting Asians to roles of the best friend, sidekick, doctor or the background. Not only is the entire cast Asian, Crazy Rich Asians is showing you can have an Asian male as the romantic lead. Gasp! And the box office is proof the people like it. Let the floodgates open.
**Update 8/25/18** Opening weekend domestic box office final number was $26.5 million. I saw it again a few days ago because I liked it and I wanted to see if I missed anything the first time. Which I did. Like the cameo of the author Kevin Kwan. Did you catch that? I haven't read the book (I'm 98 on the waiting list at the library) so it took me till the second screening to realize Astrid was Nick's cousin, not his sister. I was able to enjoy the scenery and really take in the images and sights of Singapore because I was more relaxed watching the second time around. If that seems strange or funny it's because you haven't gone your entire life without seeing a full cast of people who resemble you, in a mainstream movie, where you aren't the butt of the joke. I also paid close attention so I could hear Cold Play's Yellow sung in Mandarin during the last scene. If you didn't stay for the credits you missed the scene that some think may be a preview of what's to come in the sequel. It was announced this week there would be a second. Hopefully they'll put as much effort into the second as they did the first so we can have a third (there are three books).