Alan Yang’s Emmy Award-acceptance speech has raised many questions with regards to diversity in film and television. As he so eloquently mentions:
"There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong [Sixteen Candles], so we’ve got a long way to go."
It begs the question: when was the last time you saw an Asian-American spearhead their own film, let alone a franchise, as opposed to playing second fiddle to a white man? If you’re finding the question hard to ask, you’re not alone. As The New York Times writes:
“more than half of film, television and streaming properties feature zero named or speaking Asian characters”
With such scarcity in numbers, this severely limits the amount of opportunities to play lead roles, let alone compete for awards. But how many Oscars have they won?
They Have Mastered None
Amazingly not a single Asian-American has won a single Academy-Award for acting. Not one has even been nominated. This can be compared to Italian-Americans and Americans of Italian descent with Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Leonardo Di Caprio and Mira Sorvino all picking up the coveted award. This can be seen as due to the New York school of filmmakers in the late 60s and early 70s being given a chance to make films about their own people, with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola giving actors such as Pesci, De Niro and Pacino some of their earliest and best roles.
This was a breakthrough in cinema that was not reflected in portrayals of Asian-Americans. Comparing this to Asians in general, the numbers don't get much better, with only three wins for Asian actors:
- Best Actor: Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (1982)
- Best Supporting Actor: Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields (1984)
- Best Supporting Actress: Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara (1957)
This is even more depressing when you factor in that both Gandhi and The Killing Fields are British productions, and Sayonara is an American film. Asians and Asian-Americans have never won an acting award for stories that they have themselves directed or produced. Admittedly, the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee has won three Oscars for directing, yet these awards have yet to spread to the Asian and Asian-American actors in his films.
The Silver Oscar Lining
There is hope however, in the form of the Honorary Award, that useful tool the academy has deployed in order to rectify forgetting about great actors and filmmakers throughout their career. Think Peter O'Toole or Jean-Luc Godard, who were somehow overlooked throughout their incredible lives. Thankfully, along with Master Of None's historic win, the tide is turning, with the Academy looking to honour the master of action comedy: Jackie Chan
This is important not only because Jackie Chan is one of the best (and by far the funniest) martial arts actors in cinema history, but because he has directed or produced the large majority of his Hong-Kong films himself, deploying his own technical team for the more technical and breathtaking stunts. Therefore, he wins an acting award for the stories that he himself has directed, including Police Story, The Legend of Drunken Master and Who Am I?
This, along with the Italian-American example, sets a precedent that if we want to see more Asian-Americans winning Oscars for their acting work, you need more Asian-American directors casting them and telling their stories. This is a problem that begins at the top, and will only change when the industry starts allowing Asian-Americans (and not just Ang Lee) to tell their own stories and not to resort to shallow stereotypes or casting white people in their roles instead. For the present, television seems miles and miles ahead.
Do you think there is a diversity problem in Hollywood?