Originally published on December 22, 2018
Like many people, I grew up not seeing characters that looked like me on TV or in film. There were very few Asian Americans to see, and the odds of seeing mixed race people was even slimmer. That’s why the fact that the films, CRAZY RICH ASIANS and AQUAMAN, came out the same year have very personal significance to me.
Both films serve as firsts for Hollywood in their own ways. CRAZY RICH ASIANS is the first contemporary Hollywood film starring an all-Asian cast to come out since THE JOY LUCK CLUB in 1993. As for AQUAMAN, it’s significant in that the protagonist is both the first Pacific Islander and Hapa superhero with the casting of Jason Momoa. Both films – despite their differences in tone, story, and genre – are definitely ones that I surely could have benefited seeing when I was growing up, as I struggled to come to terms with my own identity as a mixed race Filipino American.
The ironic part about these films’ releases is how one coincidentally fills in the flaws of the other. As much as I like CRAZY RICH ASIANS, I still stand by my dismay of how, with the exception of Nico Santos and Kris Aquino, all the other Filipinos (and brown-skinned Asians in general) seen onscreen were domestic workers. There was also the controversy surrounding the casting of Henry Golding as Nick Young, due to the fact that he is mixed race.
AQUAMAN makes up for both instances (sort of). I got to see someone with brown skin be the hero of the story and the topic of having a dual identity was one of the central themes of the film.
Despite any faults and flaws, these films exist and are out there now, and are breaking molds. CRAZY RICH ASIANS fleshes out people of a community that has experienced stereotypes to no end. AQUAMAN shows how anyone can be a superhero; even someone with a mixed background.
By talking about these films, I don’t want to discredit other works that came out this year that have filled in the gap of representation that reflect my identities. On TV, AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE explored the dark story of a man with the same background as me become the ultimate of criminals the FBI has ever seen. In the independent film world, BITTER MELON told a story so grounded in reality, that it bears some resemblance to the complexities within my own family.
The reason why I acknowledge CRAZY RICH ASIANS and AQUAMAN is that it’s a sign of the times. Diversity is not just lip service anymore. It’s something that is happening with results galore. It shows that Hollywood is starting to listen and pay attention, and as slow as its progress may be at times, the fact that it’s happening at all is incredible.
Representation can go a long way. Seeing yourself or someone similar to you onscreen can have an effect on you psychologically, and when done right, it can be for the ultimate best.