As Sundance swings into full gear, Hollywood’s diversity problem is still on everyone’s lips. Danny DeVito called all the entire country “a bunch of racists”; Matt Damon admitted that there’s “huge systemic injustices around race and gender” in the industry, Michael Caine chided black actors to “be patient”; and Charlotte Rampling called the planned boycott of the Academy Awards “racist to white people” before the inevitable backlash provoked her to revise her statement. Still, none of these positions were more unapologetically provocative than the conspiracy theory dropped by Bill Maher, who blamed #OscarsSoWhite on moviegoers in China.
“They don’t want to see black people in their movies,” the host of “Real Time With Bill Maher” explained. Asians “really are racist,” Maher insisted ("I'm just honest!"), yet Hollywood needs the Asian box office to make a profit from its films. Hollywood’s goal isn’t to be politically correct but to make as much money as possible. Ergo: Chinese racism + Hollywood greed = all-white casting in films.
Maher is playing in half-truths: In 2014, China was the world’s fastest growing movie market, and is expected to overtake the U.S. by 2020. But as an explanation for #OscarsSoWhite, Maher’s blame game is so laughable that even a blogger posting on conservative Alan B. West’s eponymous website thought it mixed apples with oranges. Usefully, however, it’s symptomatic of the kind of quip-bait that deflects responsibility onto handy targets rather than taking a good hard look at the mirror. In pointing his finger at Chinese moviegoers for the unbearable whiteness of the Oscars, Maher claimed the stance of an insightful, don’t-shoot-the-messenger truth-teller. But if he’d held a mirror up to his own show, he would have seen what Salon’s Sonia Saraiya called “the unique complicity of everyone making fun of the Academy in its time of #OscarsSoWhite bad PR; after all, most of those people are members of a highly segregated and widely disparate media industry. Nowhere is this more ironic than in late-night television, where not a single person of color holds an hourlong show, on broadcast television or on cable.” That evening on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” none of the panelists discussing the Oscar’s diversity problem issue was a person of color. All three were white. Just, you know, because.
The stultifying lack of an irony button is not just late-night television’s problem. First of all, #OscarsSoWhite isn’t just about the lack of black actors getting nominated. Numerous commentators have pointed out that Asian, Latino and Native actors are underrepresented on-screen in speaking roles and therefore don’t get nominated for awards. (One cannot get an award for a juicy part one is never offered to play.) In 1956, Yul Brynner won best actor for the “King and I” (he is mixed Asian ancestry); in 1957, Miyoshi Umeki won best supporting actress for “Sayonara”; in 1982 Ben Kingsley won best actor for “Gandhi” (he is of mixed Indian descent); and in 1984, Haing S. Ngor won best supporting actor for “The Killing Fields.” Native and Latino actors have fared even more poorly in the awards ceremonies.
But given the paucity of roles—and thus awards--being won by actors of color, the question is this: if China was really calling the Oscar shots, wouldn’t it stand to reason that Hollywood films would not only be casting a preponderance of Asian actors in blockbuster films — and not just the expendable one, but also maybe casting a few in Oscar-bait prestige films? Put another way, in 2015, the top five highest-grossing films worldwide were: 1: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”; 2. “Jurassic World”; 3. “Furious 7”; 4. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”; and 5. “Minions.” None of these films were nominated for best picture; Vin Diesel has yet to receive a nomination for best actor, and “Jurassic World” actually killed an original storyline that would have featured Chinese characters as leads. You have to go all the way to no. 10, “The Martian,” to get to a film nominated for best picture, and yet, like “Jurassic World,” that film went out of its way to whitewash Asian characters present in the book on which the film was based.
Meanwhile, most of the films nominated for best picture —“The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” etc. — haven’t even opened in China, so it’s difficult to explain how the Chinese box office played into the academy’s decision to nominate no actors of color for the second year in a row. These prestige films do not feature actors of color in major speaking roles, though “The Revenant” does fit in a few Native actors sharing foreground space with Leo. More tellingly, perhaps, one of the biggest parts given to an Asian actor this year was literally mute: Sonoya Mizuno, who played Kiyoko in “Ex-Machina.” It’s not the easiest thing to play a mute machine who convinces everyone, the audience included, that she’s just another fetishized Asian fantasy girl. If grunting abundantly can get Leo nominated for best actor, surely being eloquently silent merits the same for a woman of color? Or is it easier to simply overlook her, because she played her role too well?
What Maher is really showing us is how readily powerful men in the media indulge their racism as business as usual. Yet as the market becomes more globalized, those attitudes are quickly exposed as so much manipulative fiction. For example, Hollywood’s anticipation of anti-black racism ended up blowing back in its face when the Internet learned of the China-directed marketing campaign for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which minimized to near-invisibility the character of Finn (John Boyega), while ditching Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), and Chewbacca the Wookiee. One could posit the poster for the Star Wars universe as the present world in a nutshell: in an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, Jose Antonio Vargas and Janet Yang argued that the fundamental problem of #OscarsSoWhite was its failure to accurately mirror American society as well as the changing pressures of the global movie market. In 2014, they noted, the biggest box office success in China was “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” It contained Chinese product placements and a Hong Kong action sequence, with roles for Chinese actors. “But though he liked the movie, one fan wasn’t taken in by the outreach,” they noted. “If they included more content about Chinese families, or Chinese culture, that might be more interesting.”
In sum, the racism lies in Hollywood’s failure to tell stories about China from a Chinese perspective yet expecting to profit handsomely from moviegoers in Asia, even while blaming #OscarsSoWhite on the fact that foreign audiences are shelling out money to see giant alien robots. But I’ll give Maher the benefit of the doubt: If he’s correct and China is Hollywood's secret Overlord, come next award season, we should expect to see Optimus Prime nominated for best actor.