racist casting and 21

There's been a lot of chatter and gripes lately about the movie 21, which opens in theaters nationwide this Friday. Longtime readers know that this movie has been on our radar for several years, ever since it was announced that Sony had the film in development, with Kevin Spacey attached to the project. Based on the bestselling book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, it tells the story of how a team of gifted blackjack players from MIT developed a highly successful card-counting system and took Las Vegas casinos for millions. Based on a true story, it's a great premise, and the perfect idea for a big budget Hollywood movie. Right? Not exactly.

You see, in real life, the blackjack team was a group mostly made up of Asian American students. This was actually advantageous to their strategy, as it happens, because Asian dudes winning big money at the casinos apparently aren't quite as conspicuous as white dudes who win big at the casinos. That's just the way it is. Anyway. As we all know, Hollywood studios seem to have a great of resistance to creating interesting, fully-fleshed, three-dimensional roles for Asian American actors. They seem to think we can't carry a movie, and more often than not, will instead create roles and stories for pretty white people instead. I know this, you know this, we all know this. Hell, they know this.

Case in point, 21. Except here, we actually have a true story that involved real living, breathing Asian Americans, who have been magically switched out on celluloid into—you guessed it—pretty white people. Namely, Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess. This has pretty much been the plan since the beginning, and now, the movie finally hits movie screens this week. Business as usual. That's racist!

AICN has an interview with Jeff Ma, the guy who Sturgess' character is based on. He doesn't seem to mind that they've changed his character's ethnicity... I guess he's entitled to that. It still doesn't change the fact that this movie was born out of the stereotypical Hollywood casting process. This is from an article on author Ben Mezrich and Bringin Down the House from 2005:
This view is brought about in part by Hollywood, with films like "Ocean's Eleven,"in which gambling is made to seem exotic and sexy. Incidentally, Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House" is now being turned into a feature film by Kevin Spacey, who will play the MIT professor who trained the blackjack team described in that book. During the talk, Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process--though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film's actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female. Even as Asian actors are entering more mainstream films, such as "Better Luck Tomorrow" and the upcoming "Memoirs of a Geisha," these stereotypes still exist, Mezrich said.
I must note that the movie's cast includes a couple of Asian American characters, played by Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira. They're part of the blackjack team, and do have a (less prominent) place on the movie poster. It counts for something. I really am glad that these two are in the movie, apparently added later to mitigate some of the initial controversy stirred up by this casting nonsense. Sure, it feels like the producers are throwing us a bone. They are. What they're crafting is pure Hollywood falsity. But I'm happy to see that these two rising stars will get due exposure in a high-profile movie a lot of people are going to see. I'm okay with that. (I might have to take these statements back if/when I actually see them in the movie.)

Now, there's a pretty vocal anti-21 movement that's been growing over the last few months. This movie has got a lot of people angry. There have even been calls for a an all-out boycott of 21. I'm going to put it out there—I'm not necessarily in favor of a boycott, nor am I against one either. I'm not sure where I stand on that. But I'm certainly in favor of anything that draws attention and educates people on the issues at hand. This is a good one, because it brings scrutiny to the nature of Hollywood's racist casting processes, with a very obvious, high-profile example. People are interested in this movie, without a lot of background knowledge, but this is an opportunity to create dialogue on a general practice that has systematically shut out Asians in Hollywood for years. I hope it prompts folks understand what's going on here, learn the details for themselves, talk about it, and perhaps approach 21 (and future Hollywood product) with a more discerning eye.

angry archive