Brown Asians and Black people should not be asked to support a movie that does not support them.
By Sangeetha Thanapal
[This piece is the second in a two-part critique of race in “Crazy Rich Asians”, you can read the first one here.]
Many are lauding “Crazy Rich Asians” as a step in the right direction for the representation of Asians in Hollywood. Some have even gone so far as to call it the “Asian ‘Black Panther’”, and its setting, Singapore, the “Chinese Wakanda.” The truth is that the movie is actually far from being a win for representation, largely because it perpetuates existing racist dynamics in Singapore. It simply is not the “Great Asian Hope” that it is being portrayed as.
While it is being billed as an Asian movie, it is made up almost entirely of East Asians. The few Brown people featured in it are seen in service positions to the glamorous and wealthy Chinese characters. The dominance of East Asia in the worldwide imagination of who constitutes the idea of Asia is troubling, especially since Brown Asians make up a sizeable portion of the continent. The tendency to equate East Asia with all Asians wipes out the many differences between us. An East Asian-Brown Asian divide exists specifically because Brown Asians have been overlooked from the American definition of Asian for generations.
There has been much criticism against such erasure, and this movie only propagates it by branding a Chinese cast as a movie for all Asians. It presents Brown Asians as a backdrop to East Asian opulence and success, reinforcing the notion that Brown people are inferior to East Asians, those in closer proximity to whiteness. It further entrenches the idea that East Asians are the only Asians that matter. This should not be the case, especially because East Asians buy into and promote the model minority myth, conveniently cutting out those who do not fit into this narrative.
Commentators keep referring it to as the first movie with an all-Asian cast in over two decades. However, Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem With Apu” also had a predominantly Asian cast, but because Brown Asians are often ignored within the U.S., the movie was not praised the way Crazy Rich Asians is being. One might say that a documentary is different from a movie but then what about “Missisipi Masala” or even “Harold and Kumar”?
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To compare the movie to “Black Panther” is notably anti-Black. “Black Panther” was for and about Black people, representing the aspirations of the most oppressed people across the globe. “Crazy Rich Asians,” on the other hand, represents the crass and excessive materialism of a wealthy Chinese elite. This is made all the worse by the fact that the author, Kevin Kwan, has a major character use the ‘n’ word in the novel that this movie has been adapted from. East Asian anti-blackness is well-documented, and Kwan’s story perpetuates it. One of the stars of the movie, Awkwafina, consistently uses African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), even going so far as to call herself a “ratchet ho” in her song, Yellow Ranger, both culturally appropriative and anti-black. When the novel throws around racial slurs and the movie stars someone who profits off Black culture and language, comparing it to “Black Panther” is unthinkably disrespectful to Black people.
Many believe that people of color should support this movie because it is the one Asian movie we have and that, if we do not, it will signal to Hollywood that Asian movies do not do well, shutting off the possibility of more Asian representation in the future. This argument ignores those who are erased and silenced, as well as the anti-blackness of both the novel and the movie. No one is obligated to support anything simply because it exists, especially not so when this shallow representation comes at the expense of others.
Brown Asians and Black people should not be asked to support a movie that does not support them. Instead, what we should be doing is holding this movie and its makers accountable for its many issues, and demanding that Asians are given better material than this. If this is the Asian movie of Hollywood, that does not bode well for Asians in general. What does it say about the standards we are willing to accept?
We can all do better than this movie, and we should.
Author Bio: Sangeetha Thanapal is an artist and writer working on the intersections of race, gender and body in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore. Her fantasy fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Brown Girl Mag and many more. Her website is here and she can be found everywhere @kaliandkalki.
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