Half Breed Pt. II: The Other Colors In A Celluloid World
In a way, I feel movies are like history books. The information we receive depends on the writers and what they deem to be pertinent pieces of information to keep on record. But, this may not always reflect what truly happened as vital pieces of information may have been blatantly left out or altered. Yes, there are historians who report on the lesser known facts of world history, but I'm talking about the books our lessons came from in school. Had the survivors of the natives who were tortured and slaughtered by Christopher Columbus written history, I would be very surprised if we still regarded him in a positive light and celebrated a national holiday in his name. In regards to slavery in America, history classes taught us that, yes, it did happen. But, it wasn't until I read the memoirs of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs as well as others that I was given an honest glimpse into the brutality and unforgivable acts committed against human beings in this country.
Speaking with my Filipino-American father, he had no idea of the struggles Filipinos faced when they came to the U.S. in the early 1900's. He didn't know about the signs on store fronts demanding "No Dogs and No Filipinos Allowed." He didn't know about the Watsonville Riots and the fact that there is an entire generation of Filipino-American men without any heirs because of discriminatory miscegenation laws. Laws that would have have made it illegal for my mother and him to be together because she was white. He also didn't know the struggles Filipino farm workers went through at the hands of White people and White police officers.
But, I didn't either. I had to seek out this information on my own from books dedicated to the history of Filipino American life and culture that I had to purchase from Filipino festivals and Filipino bookstores. But, these stories and incidents are all part of American history. So, why did we not learn about these issues in depth... Or at all?
Much like history, the films we see and the characters that are deemed relatable are dictated by those who make them. I went to Samuel French, a film and theater-related bookstore, a few weeks ago. I was browsing through the different sections of plays, screenplays, and How-To filmmaking books. I came across the "Director" section and noticed an annoying and all-too-common similarity. Besides Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, every other director was an old white male. It's no wonder that people often complain that there are no original movies anymore -- everything is a remake or retelling of an older film. But, how can we have new, innovative films when they are all still coming from the same old perspective? We're constantly fed the same generic storylines and the same homogenous characters because these films are coming from the same type of mind. How many white saviors do I have to see rescuing people of color before these people finally get to stand up for themselves? How many quirky white couples do I have to see before a film about a couple of color is made without it being designated a Black movie or an Asian movie targeting those specific audiences? How many TV shows and films do I have to see about the British monarchy? Period.
An even more infuriating concept to me is the white-washing of characters. Even when roles are meant for Asian actors, they still cast white actors to play them instead. I had no idea Emma Stone was supposed to be playing a half-Chinese character in "Aloha" because, you know, she's NOT Asian. Not until I saw her character's last name was Ng and started hearing all the uproar over the movie did I have my WTF moment. I can't even look at a "Ghost in the Shell" poster or trailer without proclaiming, "Fuck you," under my breath as I rummage through all the white faces searching for any Asian person in a film that's based on a Japanese action manga. Then I think how stunning Rinko Kikuchi would have been in ScarJo's place and it infuriates me more. And I don't think shaving Tilda Swinton's head in "Doctor Strange" made her any more legit as a Tibetan man. To be fair to the film's creators, they changed Tilda's character to Celtic because they felt the old Tibetan Ancient One in the comics perpetuated an American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like and they felt they needed to avoid that stereotype at all costs. Gee, thanks? So, you couldn't create an Asian character who wasn't stereotypical? Why not try to change the stereotype and create an Asian character who could be someone the Asian American community could get behind and be proud of?
Too hard to think outside your tiny little box?
To the woman who created this, I seriously love you.
Alan Yang's acceptance speech at the 2016 Critics' Choice TV Awards subtly slammed all of these like-minded individuals in the most beautiful way when he and the other "Master of None" creators won for Best Comedy Series and he thanked "...all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original."
YES. So, why does representation matter so much?
It matters because people need to see positive images and characters of people they see as the "other."
Growing up, I always loved movies. My aunt remarked that from a very young age, my brother and I could sit and watch any type of movie because we were so mesmerized by them. I remember watching one of my favorites, "The Godfather," for the first time when I was about 6 years old and being completely enthralled by everything and everyone I saw in it. As a child, I didn't immediately recognize that there weren't any movies that reflected my background or my life. I just loved watching them. But, as I got older I wondered why there weren't families like mine or interracial couples like my parents. But, how could there be? It was only a few years ago that racists were freaking out over a sweet Cheerios commercial with a little biracial girl with a White mom and a Black dad. But, let them freak out about it. Because there needs to be more of these families and more of these stories. If there were more interracial families like mine or many other biracial individuals, it would become the norm. People's outrage would stop because it wouldn't be something different. It would just be. Maybe if there were more people of color on screen in general, people wouldn't be so ignorant and afraid of what they are not familiar with. Maybe if there were more Muslim characters on people's screens that didn't perpetuate the negative stereotypes of them in the media, people would see them for what they are: human beings. Maybe if there were more positive images of brown and black faces on TV and movie screens, my mixed Filipino husband wouldn't have been called a yard ape by the White kids in his all-White neighborhood in Boise, ID. Maybe if he didn't have the experiences he had as a child in this close-minded community, he wouldn't be so uncomfortable walking around all-White towns throughout America. People often question how he could be more comfortable walking the streets of East Oakland than a small white town in Idaho or California or anywhere, but when you're referred to as"boy" by a white face glaring back at you with sinister eyes one too many times, you immediately get the sense that you don't belong and they don't want you here.
It matters because people of color need to see positive images and characters like themselves. They need to know their stories are important and their existence matters.
In an Asian American film class, we watched a Filipino-American movie called, "The Debut." It's about a Filipino-American young man who is struggling with his desire to be an artist and assimilate to American culture while simultaneously rejecting his Filipino roots and the pressure his father puts on him to become a doctor. In class we spoke about how many young Filipino-Americans struggle with their identity because they don't have any representation in the media and there aren't any people who look like them that they can look up to and identify with. This causes many young Filipinos to either identify with the white culture or stereotypical black culture that they see on the screen instead of identifying with their own and, in many instances, rejecting their own culture.
In regards to beauty standards, western beauty is universally seen as the ideal. When I went to the Philippines, I saw more brands of skin whitening cream than I did of toothpaste. Double eyelid surgery, the process of making one's eyes appear wider and larger, is one of the most popular cosmetic procedures in the world especially in Asia. I've seen many campaigns for Black women embracing their dark skin and natural hair, but why should they have to? Why are they constantly being given the message that they have to defend their beauty because it doesn't match the quintessential standard of white skin, straight blonde hair, and blue eyes? Beauty, I believe, is truly in the eye of the beholder. But, when we are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered to be beautiful, our perception changes. We begin to dislike our appearances and feel like we need to change ourselves to fit this beauty norm. Why do we have to reclaim our beauty in order to love our own skin? Why aren't we being told that we're beautiful just as we are?
I recently watched a speech Riz Ahmed gave to the British Parliament on representation. He stated that what people are looking for in stories is "a message that they belong... They're part of something. That they are seen. And heard... That they are valued. They want to feel represented." He recalled a time when he was younger when his mother and sister would watch television and he would be playing video games upstairs. He would hear them scream, "Asian," and he would run down the stairs just to get a glimpse of an Asian character on the TV. I would imagine that it wasn't a very common occurrence. He went on to say that when people don't feel represented, they switch off and we can lose these people to extremism. We need to include instead of excluding and alienating people. People need to see themselves in magazines, films, and TV because it sends the message: You are beautiful. You are important. You matter.
A unique perspective...
Being half-breeds, so to speak, gives one a different perspective. After my husband and I watched Jordan Peele's, "Get Out," we spoke about how his being biracial may have had a deep impact on his process of making the film. Peele is half-White, but he had no qualms and no hesitation about showing the horrors within white culture and White communities towards people of color, Black people in the particular case of this film. Being biracial as well, I know what it feels like to have White family members degrade people of color and for me to feel so protective of these groups of people they targeted. When you hear uncles use the N-word freely and try to excuse it with an "oh, that's just a term we used," or hear them refer to Asians as chinks, or have a cousin refer to any Black person gunned down by police as a thug, or have a cousin say he won't go to your wedding if you married a Black person, it gives you a unique perspective into some White people's horrid way of thinking. And it also doesn't give you any patience for their racism and ignorance. So, if that's my family, I can only imagine what Peele may have heard at his family gatherings that gave him the desire to make this film.
With my scripts, I write about the characters, the stories, and the faces I want to see on screen while still dealing with universal themes. My desire when I write my screenplays is to create a reflection of the world I live in. I feel perpetually stuck between the real world and the film world because I love film. But, it doesn't reflect my life and it doesn't reflect my reality. I don't want people years from now to look back at the period in which I lived and not know about the history of people whose voices weren't deemed important enough to be heard. I want to make sure these stories, these people, and these struggles are remembered and preserved whether that be in history books or on film. I've seen so many films about White people's struggles, accomplishments, and dreams. But, why can't I see something different?
People of color can sing and dance, too. People of color have struggles, too. People of color have dreams, too. People of color can fall in love, too. People of color can have their hearts broken, too. And people of color can damn sure fight off a hoard of fire-breathing dragons attacking the Great Wall of CHINA if we needed to, too!
Much better than Matt Damon ever could.