“21″ And Race

Spoiler-free :)

I like to go to movies alone. I figure, I can see exactly what I want to see and I don’t waste any valuable time coordinating a meet-up with someone or some people just to sit there for 2 hours in the dark with them. If I want to get together with someone, I like to spend it enjoying an activity with them, or seeing them face-to-face. Not sitting next to them in the dark.

But I went even further this time. I paid $14 for a movie I had decided was going to be horrible. Predictible. Unchallenging, glossy and all-style-no-substance. Well, 4 out of 5 ain’t bad. So, it wasn’t horrible.

I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t.

That’s my way of coming clean with the bias I had going into “21.” I had heard that this movie was based upon a book (“Bringing Down The House” by Ben Mezrich) written about a group of MIT students who used their mathematical talents to count cards in Vegas. And so I shelled out some lunch money to instead sit there – again, alone – for a good 2 hours so I’d be warranted in fleshing out my frustration at mis-/un-representation in a blog post.

The truth is, the movie that was based upon the book was based upon the real-life experience of a group of mostly Asian kids who indeed went to MIT.

I’ve felt – and followed through with – this kind of duty before. I’ve ranted about Abercrombie & Fitch’s past discriminating hiring practices and what I’ve felt was objectification through Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls. (Unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t have the links to these pieces as they belong to the dead body of what I consider a past blogging life.)

Now let me go through the “qualities” of the movie. It’s somewhat entertaining, and if you ever remotely wondered about what “counting cards” meant, they do a pretty good job of explaining it in some detail. I used to have a co-worker who is actually registered in the Planet Hollywood conglomerate of Vegas hotels’ (including Paris) facial recognition system for having been detected for counting cards. He cannot even sit down at a blackjack table without being told to “please leave.” Granted, the first time he was told so his face didn’t get met with brass knuckles – just unknowingly scanned and put into the system. So I guess it’s convenient that this movie uses the development of such software as a “closing window” before which it takes place.

The movie makes you want to go to Vegas. You know … I don’t really think that’s such a hard thing to do. But as long as I’m going through the qualities, I’ll try and knock ‘em out of the park, right? Let’s see. Kate Bosworth is really pretty and wears shiny lip gloss. I really want the bag that Liza Lapira is carrying, post-winnings. And Jim Sturgess is somewhat likeable in that really annoying kind of way. *cough* He chokes me up a lot. You know, the two main characters who happen to be caucasian end up turning out really marketable.

I have no idea why I inserted this picture here

Let’s just skip to it, shall we?

What I see here is the story of – let’s not gloss over this – a group of talented, gifted minorities attending an Ivy League school who defied the traditional perceptions of success of their (assumedly) first-generation, immigrant parents that went entirely wasted. The potential of the story was just enormous. Instead:

The book’s Asian American protagonist (Jeffrey Ma, the book’s ” Kevin Lewis,” has a cameo as a dealer in the movie) has been changed into the generically “all-American” Ben Campbell — who, with typical Hollywood irony, is played by a Brit, “Across the Universe’s” Jim Sturgess.

- LA Times.com Review

Not entirely surprising, of course. Let’s face it: marketability is the easy route. And many articles I’m referencing in this post are probably warranted in citing That -Ism, but you know – that is also the easy route, or I haven’t lived in this town that is entertainment capital for 10 years. This is the way the industry works:

Asian American actors rarely get the opportunity to shine by playing meaty roles, and even when there’s a project crying out for their casting- like in 21- they get pushed aside so white people can play them instead. Brunetti said he was only looking for the best actors for the roles. Yet clearly, the producers and director exemplified nepotism and a lazy approach to casting: Producer Kevin Spacey got to play the MIT professor, Spacey asked Kate Bosworth, his co-star in two movies (Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns), who had also been directed by Luketic in Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, to be one of his students. The Australian director picks a British actor, Jim Sturgess, as his lead, who, with Jacob Pitts (another student on the 21 team), were both seen in Across the Universe.

- MANAA on falloutcentral.com

You know, though, Hollywood doesn’t owe it to us to make Asian Americans entirely round characters. Clearly, we’re not yet capable of being in the center of their social responsibility radar. We definitely have a lot of work to do. It starts from the ground up, you know. Before the casting was even done, a script was written with the actor profiles already in mind – complete with casting a couple Asians as entirely flat, token characters.

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.

- www-tech.mit.edu

I’m hesitant to bring up the two movies Mr. Mezrich did because they were decidedly Asian American and Asian movies, built for those purposes. They are not mainstream in focus or subject, and this is precisely the ground we are trying to break. Except that Better Luck… was an American story but its success was limited to its marketability. But it dared to go there; sadly this represents the truth of Asian American marketability not being mainstream. Hopefully it’s a movie that will pave the way for others not representing Asians per se, but merely containing Asian American actors, to make more mainstream headway. You know, though, “21″ had the potential to be – it was just bankrolled and steered by the wrong(headed) people.

What’s amazing is that the ethnicity of the original, real-life MIT team was integral in their remaining inconspicuous. It’s not uncommon in the casinos to see Asian, Persian or otherwise those with olive-colored skin put down bankrolls of money on the table. White college kids would have been much more obvious. But it’s easy in the age before facial recognition software, I guess, because all you need are a couple of wigs and costumes …

Some point out that Jeff Ma wasn’t particularly bummed about his character not being cast as Asian. I have to be honest in that his answer was not satisfying to me, in fact it was disappointing:

For me it wasn’t a big deal, because for about three years people had been asking me who I wanted to play me in a movie and I never was saying like “John Cho” or “Chow Yun-Fat” or “Jackie Chan…” I really wasn’t and I mean if I asked you who you would want to play you in a movie, you wouldn’t be thinking “I want the most similar person,” but you would be thinking ”Who’s cool?” or who do you think would personify your personality or who is a good actor or who is talented, so as much as I think people like to look at it at face value like that, the reality is if you ask anyone who they wanted to play you, it wouldn’t necessarily be “Who’s the most ethnically tied to me?”

I could ask three people who they want to play them and at the end I’ll ask them “So what ethnicity are you?” and they wouldn’t even know probably.

As someone who couldn’t run away from the race issue had I wanted to for so many years of my life, the reality of such has given me the privilege of really knowing in my head that it needs to be tackled head-on. Ignoring that racism doesn’t exist or pretending it isn’t a factor in this or that situation won’t make it go away. Why are Harold and martial arts stars the only option? It’s as if he is assuming there are no good, non-geeky and actually-cool Asian actors out there who are not undiscovered, like Jim Sturgess is a small name. What does it mean to say that most people would not know what ethnicity they are? This response just baffles me, and saddens me.

Likewise, it gives me hope that there exists a niche to fill, perhaps one that practically my best friend in the world Tim can fill … and has filled with recent projects.

The couple of elderly ladies sitting next to me in the movie walked out about halfway, to my surprise. I saw a few others get up and walk out as well. I, myself, while even wanting to hate this movie didn’t think it was bad enough to walk out on – but this might be a testament to the fact that “21″ is targeted to my demographic, my age group. If it had been an Independent movie, perhaps Jeff Ma’s story could have been given the direction, nuance and intrigue it deserved.

At the end, all I wanted to do was stand up and shout, “Hey Ben!! Why don’t you try getting a frickin’ student loan??”



Further Reading:

Jane Willis (Kate Bosworth’s character) – Boston.com

When the Stakes Are High, “21″ Folds – Enterprisenews.com

“21″ Movie Review on EW – EW.com

Trans-racialization in “21″ – Racialicious.com (blog)

The “21″ Experience – Lizburr.com (blog)

11 thoughts on ““21″ And Race

  1. nice post. i found the movie entertaining, although the love story and the ending ended up a little too nice and neat for me. i’ve been reading up on the asian issue related to this movie too. i don’t care that the casting changed the way that it did. just the fact that it was based on an asian-american story was interesting enough to me.

    read this post about it?

  2. Hollywood is an interesting beast. For all its claimed good intentions, you’ve still got racist marketability, revisionist history, and Magical Black Man Syndrome. I remember my mother would constantly get pissed watching films with mostly American characters, save one British guy, who would invariably turn out to be the villain. Then there’s U-571, which turned a historically British WWII accomplishment into an American one. That seems to be the theme, actually- the Americanisation of history. (The spirit of the Samurai lived on…. in Tom Cruise!)

    Out of curiosity, are there any Hollywood movies you consider ‘good’ for Asian/Asian-American portrayals? Or independent/non-Hollywood?

  3. To give Lexybeast some insight, you can’t go wrong with Justin Lin. He’s a UCLA grad, and a smart, talented film maker who is firmly attached to his roots, yet has also crossed over to the mainstream Hollywood studio system. Because of his Sundance winning “Better Luck Tomorrow”, (which I regard as the single best ‘quintessential’ Asian-American youth experience movie out there), Lin has gone on to direct a couple feature Hollywood films, including Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. His honorable care into crafting real roles elevates the ones portrayed by Asian American actors into stuff that us AA actors aspire to get.

    Funny enough, it’s Justin Lin who’ll be the first to tell you that Asian Americans don’t have any buying power in Hollywood. There’s not even an Asian demographic for marketing. Asians are counted as white, when it comes to money.

    So long as that’s the case, there will never be a need to produce Hollywood movies with AA stories and AA people.

  4. I’ve seen the documentary through history channel or discovery. I would assume that the movie version was a little more entertaining, if at all. But nevertheless, the story itself seems interesting.

  5. e, as with many things in life, sharing an experience with with company will always be more enriching. a movie is another method to tell a story. if the movie is good, then a good story has been told. invite someone to join you in it next time!

    someone like me :”)

  6. @gw: When I saw the previews for it, it sounded fishy because I knew they had facial recognition software – I think that’s how it first piqued my curiosity. When I learned later it was about the time before the software, and then that the actual students were mostly Asian, I thought it “typical” they would cast like that – I was miffed. I’d contrast the fact that you didn’t care it was cast like that with, say, some other AA’s who want to be “represented” in *some* fashion in mainstream entertainment consumption, especially if they’re going to say it’s “based on” their experience… myself included. You know, since there’s so little. I think it’s a normal desire.

    @Lexybeast: Thanks for sharing about your mom. Interesting to note that Americanisation is applied across the board … including war movies. At the same time, I’d challenge the assumption that Asian American-isation is still an American phenomenon, just that people tend not to think so just because it’s not a white experience?

    @soulst0p: Well, that’s depressing about the demo. True, but depressing. (Indeed, Justin Lin is very talented – hopefully he’ll take “us” far.)

    @codemunky: I’m interested in the documentary. And yeah, my assumption is that the Hollywood movie would aim for the entertainment value over historical accuracy … case-in-point, this post. :)

    @owbert: I tend to disagree. First, you gotta agree on the movie you want to see, or leave it completely to happenstance that you want to see the same one. Then you gotta find a time it’s showing, and either meet there, and wait for them … or pick them up or have them pick you up. This sometimes tends to make you late if you resolve to go there together. I like to go early or stay late to peruse Amoeba Records next door (I usually see my movies at the Arclight at Sunset/Cahuenga). Anyhoo, I am a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to movies and a few other things because I choose to be. :) Maybe I will bump into you there!

  7. -Soulstop: ah yes, I’ve seen Better Luck Tomorrow. I can see his point about AA’s lack of buying power. As for the marketing, well… my gf was working in that field for a while, and from her stories, I get the idea that it’s a pretty nonsensical field.
    -e: sorry, I’m a little lost reading your comment, can you clarify? =)

  8. @Lexybeast: Oops, I just reread my comment and it’s lost on me, too. Head’s in the clouds!

    Guess what I meant was, the “Asian American” experience is still an American experience – but people tend not to think so just because from our appearances. People (in general, and I’d go as far as to say mostly in middle America) tend to have the knee-jerk reaction that we’re directly from Asia. The idea is lost that a lot of us have been here our entire lives. And thus, they don’t think that Asians are ever actually American. That’s just the assumption that, from my observation, has been tied our look. It’s unique because – to contrast – people don’t assume Mexicans or Latinos are fresh from Mexico or Latin America and African Americans have their tortured history *in* America. Hope that clarifies things. :)

    For example, Roycifer was walking in Old Town Pasadena once, recently (I’m sure you’re aware of the sample demo there). He heard someone in the passenger seat of a car turning the corner say, “It’s like we’re in China.” The comment IMHO is laden with the sentiment that Asians – doesn’t matter where from, what generation we are – don’t belong, and can’t be native to America. A parallel could be drawn about blacks “belonging” in the south parts of metro American cities, or what-have-you with Latinos in miscellaneous other metropolitan parts. In general, this phenomenon can be chalked up to the fact that we are mostly the last race to emigrate from our native parts. Obviously, exceptions to this would be Chinese railroad workers and Japanese farmers in early American history.

  9. the book was good, and they did comment on havin to use certain ethnicities to play certain roles (rich asian parachute kid).

    the movie and e* don’t even mention the other “race”: the females. the gurls allowed the team to stay under the radar for so long b/c the casinos weren’t suspicious; they assumed females were not “smart” enough or “good at math” to count cards.

    there will always be artistic license. if you want to tell a good story, you adjust to your audience (sell out?) and your goal is to entertain as many as possible. if you want to make money with your story, you sell out even more. if you want to be ojbective and report the facts, then you’re not making a movie or writing a historical fiction, you’re a journalist.
    each medium is different and deserves to be judged by their own criteria.

    given that asians are still only 4% of the population, and blacks are only 12% of the nation….how do you market to that and how do you responsibily represent that cross-section? what is fair?

    with a card team of 5 ppl, having 0.2 of them be asian would fairly rep the nation. (maybe a really small midget asian?)

    MIT’s asian pop is about 20%. so having 1 out of the 5 is a good rep of the school’s demographics. i don’t remember if the book mentioned the exact breakdown.

    all in all, i agree. less selling-out to the white kids, being more true as an artist to the story. and more roles for Tim Chiou. but growing up in SoCal, i take race relations for granted. remember…there are white kids in Kansas. a Kansas that voted Republican in 2004.

  10. @big league: Well that’s awesome you read the book! I’m all the more enlightened for it. Especially the fact that the females were a huge factor in their operation. :) Go ladies!!

    The %’s you bring up are a good point – as are the differences between journalism and entertainment, as you put it, “selling out.” I guess my response, then, would be that there are always compromises to everything yet if a group of people don’t truly feel “fairly” represented based on fact (especially if a movie chooses to base itself upon true events) why would we default, then, to the make-up of the surrounding demo in which these true events occurred? Rights of the individual, per se. I think we might make that even more cause to tell the true story because “despite all odds” here is a group of people of certain descent who went through this, who accomlished that. :)

    But yeah, I’ve said this already – and of course it comes down to the lowest commen denominator. It’s just easier to go with what’s most marketable. Safer, even. We can understand it, but doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. :) Just like the script would’ve been harder to write if it were truer to events racially, case-in-point, are you going to have a love story between a hot shot male big player and a smart (or simply beautiful) woman woven into the plot?

  11. -e: gotcha. Yeah, it sadly isn’t as ‘Middle America’ a phenomenon as people in CA I’m sure would like to believe… a Korean-American friend of mine was up in a small town in Northern CA once at a supermarket, and the clerk at the counter enunciated clearly:
    ‘Um… I’m from here.’
    ‘Oh, ok then!’


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