“Crazy Rich Asians” is one of the few recent Hollywood films about Asians that doesn’t feature Matt Damon or Scarlett Johansson as the lead.
Jokes aside, it is incredibly rare to see an American-studio produced, ensemble film about Asians that doesn’t feature a white actor – a feat that hasn’t happened since the 1993 film, “The Joy Luck Club.” But such a rare accomplishment is not without controversy, and the debate that “Crazy Rich Asians” sparked about its casting of British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding struck a chord with me as a biracial woman of Japanese and Italian descent.
“Crazy Rich Asians” follows the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who accompanies her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), on a trip back to his native Singapore, only to discover that he comes from one of the wealthiest families in Singaporean high society.
The ensemble of “Crazy Rich Asians” reads like a who’s-who list of Asian-American stars, from established veterans like Michelle Yeoh to recent “Daily Show” breakout Ronny Chieng. But it was Golding’s casting that created the most waves among communities of color.
The issue first came up when casting decisions were announced in spring of this year, but recently resurfaced when the first production stills from the film were released Nov. 2, raising a debate about fitting biracial actors into the Hollywood landscape. While there is no clear consensus, it is important to include biracial actors and identities within the broader community of color.
Blowback to Golding’s casting was swift, with fans comparing the choice to other controversial castings, such as the multiracial actress Katie Chang portraying a fully Asian character in 2013′s “The Bling Ring.” When Korean-American actress Jamie Chung found out about the choice during an interview, she responded by saying, “OK. I’m going to say it. That is some bullshit.”
Chung said she was frustrated because she wasn’t given a part in “Crazy Rich Asians” due to her Korean heritage, since the director was looking for actors who were ethnically Chinese.
Reactions like Chung’s response raise questions about how biracial and multiracial actors fit into a film industry that is becoming more aware of race in casting. Within the industry, roles available to biracial actors often depend specifically on their physical appearance. The conversation begs the question – does casting a partially white person to play a character of color qualify as whitewashing?
As a biracial person myself, this issue hit home and made me feel deeply uncomfortable and conflicted.
The criticisms that plagued Golding’s casting felt familiar to me, echoing comments I’ve heard in my own experience in the entertainment industry. As a child, I occasionally worked as an extra in films and TV shows. The selection process consisted of databases that held information for casting directors and reduced actors to supposedly defining characteristics, such as age, height and race.
I once got a call to appear on a popular crime procedural, but when the casting director pulled up my photo, my offer was rescinded. Even though my race was listed as Asian, I wasn’t “Asian enough.”
Reading the criticism directed at Golding and “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu brought back feelings of confusion, resentment and hurt.
On the one hand, Hollywood has a history of whitewashing Asian roles, and many of the Asian actors that are able to find prominence are partially white – Olivia Munn, Maggie Q, Keanu Reeves. Within biracial identity, there’s an ongoing debate about what it means to be white-passing, and how that changes one’s experience as a person of color because of the relative privilege that physical appearance can confer on someone.
However, it is impossible to consider biracial casting without considering the limited representation and opportunities of this identity within Hollywood. I can count on one hand the number of characters explicitly identified as biracial that I remember from films and television.
Being partially white doesn’t cancel out one’s identity as a person of color. Navigating the world as a biracial person is difficult on its own – oftentimes, biracial people are not accepted by either race or community they belong to, are and told they’re “not enough” to count. Being biracial shouldn’t delegitimize someone’s place in communities of color.
It’s difficult to make blanket statements when it comes to an issue as complex as the role of biracial actors in Hollywood. In the case of “Crazy Rich Asians,” race and ethnicity play so heavily into the narrative that it is understandable why Asian actors within Hollywood may have difficulty with Chu’s casting decision.
I can only hope that Golding delivers a solid performance in the role, and thus dispels perceptions that he only got the role because of his partially white heritage, hopefully paving a way forward for biracial representation in Hollywood.
Such a situation should be approached with compassion and the acknowledgement that biracial people are people of color too – identity goes beyond what one looks like and how people appear on the surface, extending to one’s family and culture too. While people can’t just decide what race they are, phenotypes aren’t the be-all and end-all.
The nuances of biracial identity and the subjectivity of that experience are essential when considering Golding’s casting in “Crazy Rich Asians,” leaving potential audience members and communities of color searching for a clear answer.
Until then, I’ll be left to wonder what it means to be Asian enough.