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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ filmmakers on revolutionizing Hollywood’s diversity dilemma

When we think Asians in Hollywood, we’re more often than not talking about the meager roles stolen and given to white actors and actresses instead (I can’t wait to see Scarlett Johansson in the new “Mulan” live-action). The main focus of Asian American activism in the last few years has been advocating for mainstream representation. Asian Americans so passionately rally for on-screen visibility because it’s difficult growing up and having to see oneself reduced to a side-character without any substance.

Asian actors so routinely fill roles like the “karate kid,” or the “straight A obsessed student,” that it has gotten to a point where Asians are pleading for something as simple as seeing characters who were normal. Not characters so preoccupied with their Asianness, that the notion of just being Asian encompasses the entirety of their character arc.

Activist and screenwriter William Yu launched #SeeAsAmStar as a result of the lack of Asians on screen. Yu digitally edited Asian actors’ faces onto the faces of lead actors in blockbuster films, like “The Hunger Games.” With movements like Yu’s to “reimagine Hollywood films” with Asian American leads, the minds behind “Crazy Rich Asians” saw a niche that was desperately needing to be filled. They saw how Asian Americans still had hope, despite the numerous times Hollywood has alienated and mocked them before.

This is the first time Asian Americans are seeing fellow Asians in a mainstream, wildly popular light. At their Beverly Hills press conference, the minds behind the film detailed the various aspects that went into cultivating the film into the blockbuster hit it is now.

 

The insistence on a major studio distributing the film

Netflix has made a name for itself as a pioneer in the entertainment industry. Its films and TV shows all have drawn in a cult following for the originality and the boundaries they are able to push. It’s no surprise that Netflix fought for the rights to “Crazy Rich Asians.” Given free reign by his producers, Director Jon M. Chu only had “15 minutes” to decide on a distributor for the film. “I love Netflix, by the way,” he insists. He details how the true movie-viewing experience, from the universal struggle to find parking, to simply buying the overpriced snacks, has cultivated an environment where stories were told for years on end. Kwan didn’t want to pass up the first chance Asian Americans had in twenty-five years to see a movie of “Crazy Rich Asians’” caliber take back Hollywood’s countless injustices.

One of the fundamental reasons for the leap towards mainstream distribution? Kwan wanted future generations to see a well-made film that was unapologetic in its renouncement of white-centric storytelling. “I wanted this experience for future generations to look at and be like — we achieved this. We’re watching a red carpet with Asian actors walking up and down it, just like any Hollywood film would get.”

cra Crazy Rich Asians filmmakers on revolutionizing Hollywoods diversity dilemma
(Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly)

The struggles Asian Americans have with their identity

Culture clash. One of the central themes of the film Asian Americans identified with has been the challenge of experiencing and wanting to assimilate into Western culture, while maintaining the traditions of one’s parents. Author Kevin Kwan discussed how his journey of an “Asian American going to Asia” for the first time had led him to encapsulate it in his novel. What he wanted to pen was a narrative on Asian Americans’ attempts to coalesce their conflicting cultural perspectives into a singular identity. Rachel’s character was meant as representation of his first time experiencing Singapore.

Kwan had written the characters of Rachel and Astrid as ultimately defiant to the patriarchal society that infused itself with the traditions they were forced to abide by. Rachel needed to please Nick’s family, Astrid felt as though she needed to stay with her husband, despite his unfaithfulness. “I didn’t want any of these women to depend on a man, and each of their decisions had to be their own decision.” There is no “getting the guy” for Rachel and Astrid. “It’s about self worth. That you are worth everything, and you deserve anything that you want.”  

What made the film feel so genuine and authentic to Asian Americans, even if it didn’t fully represent every intricate aspect of various “Asian” experiences, was the Rachel’s continual feeling of not being enough. She felt like she wasn’t enough for either American standards, or Singaporean standards, and her coming to terms with her uniquely Asian American identity was critical to the film’s poignancy.

 

A small detail of the book didn’t make it in the film — we can thank Constance for this one

Constance Wu was easily the most recognizable amongst the cast when the initial trailer dropped. Her undeniably brilliant role in “Fresh off the Boat” propelled her to stardom, and the world has become enamored by her openness and witty personality. It’s safe to say we all have a crush on Constance Wu. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Her performance in the film was iconic, inimitable. The filmmakers called her “perfect” for the role. Yet, scheduling conflicts nearly took Wu off the project. Without any hesitation, the filmmakers made it clear they were willing to wait on Wu for four months until her schedule cleared, especially after her impassioned campaign for her to stay on the project. Wu was decidedly involved in the creative process behind her character, penning letters to director Chu on her take for Rachel’s characterization. Rachel, in the book, mentions briefly how she never dated an Asian man before. She wanted to take Rachel’s blurb about her dating history out, especially with Hollywood’s sordid insistence on emasculating and desexualizing Asian American men.  

 

The need to represent the authenticity of Asians, and setting precedent to how Hollywood should do it in the future

The producers were in unanimous agreement at feeling exhausted from “having the same stories told, with the same characters, with people who look the same, over and over again.” They were tired of narrative scarcity. Their main job in making sure the film was successful in portraying an Asian narrative was to “listen.”

The key to doing this?

“I think that’s a mistake that people often make when they’re doing something. They will hire one person of color, and that person becomes the spokesperson.” What the creators of the film aimed to do was fully grasp the Asian and Asian American experience by having as many Asian creatives attached to the project as possible. With a focus on whiteness in the majority of media, the way film studio heads attempted to implement diversity was having a “spokesperson” of color. Film studios deny the cultural dialectic, creating competition for roles amongst people of color.

“Crazy Rich Asians” had the opportunity to become such a culturally impactful work because filmmakers were flat out “exhausted” at having the media being dominated by one voice. They wanted to involve actors and actresses in the creative process to have conversations about the film’s intricacies. They wanted to make sure what they were creating was capturing a wholly Asian American dynamic within the work.

Even with details like casting, creators of “Crazy Rich Asians” rejected the methodology Hollywood has frequently utilized. Instead of choosing the same ten Asian actors that Hollywood kept recasting, they spent copious hours and employed countless methodologies in order to create a compelling cast able to elevate the film’s complexity. With talent from across the globe, they wanted to include as many Asian actors and actresses on the project as possible to have a variety of Asian experiences incorporated into even small roles.   

Director Chu was even described as “truly extraordinary” for his overt passion when it came to casting. Watching every single audition, for even the smallest roles, and even diving on actors’ social media accounts underscored his insistence on attention to detail.

“Crazy Rich Asians” indisputably was the biggest film of the summer, a blockbuster hit labelled as refreshing and pivotal in changing Hollywood’s diversity dynamic. Yet, the most refreshing thing about the film is its purpose. The goal was for it to stop being so refreshing to see an all Asian cast — it just becomes normal.  

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