• Industry

Asian-Americans in Hollywood Address Anti-Asian Racism

Kelly Marie Tran, H.E.R., Simu Liu, other Asian-Americans in Hollywood, as well as allies, spoke at CAA’s recent Amplify Town Hall to address the rise of anti-Asian violence. With the vow to no longer stay silent being echoed several times in the event, participants spoke about the long history of racism against Asians in America which has manifested itself in a spate of recent attacks.

Other speakers who shared their experiences and concern included U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, actors Maulik Pancholy (chair and co-founder of Act to Change), Chloe Bennet, DeWanda Wise and Jenny Yang, STOP AAPI Hate co-founder Cynthia Choi, The Hundreds co-founder Bobby Hundreds, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, artistic director of the Young Vic theater Kwame Kwei-Armah and journalist Lisa Ling.

Kelly Marie Tran and Jenny Yang, paired together, talked about being Asian-Americans in Hollywood. Kelly said, “How do I figure out working within the system that perpetuates this (anti-Asian racism)?” The actress, who voiced Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon and played Rose Tico in the Star Wars movies, asked aloud what the next steps should be and how changes can be made to combat racism.

Jenny decried the use of racist terms to call the COVID-19 virus such as China virus and Kung Flu. H.E.R., Golden Globe and Oscar nominee for Best Original Song for Fight For You from the film Judas and the Black Messiah, said both Asian and Black communities are impacted by the hate crimes.

The singer-composer, who recently won two Grammys, including song of the year for I Can’t Breathe, inspired by the late George Floyd, said that as a half-Filipina and half-Black, she’s asking for communities to get together and unite against racism and violent attacks.

H.E.R. added after the Town Hall, “Hopefully the power of our words can lead us into action and change. It’s time for us to unite.  I’m so grateful to be a part of such a strong community of people.  We will get through this together.”

Kevin Lin, co-head of CAA’s cultural business strategy, welcomed the speakers and those who joined the virtual Town Hall which he described as a means to start a conversation on the pressing issue. Simu Liu, who stars in Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Jeff Chang, historian and writer, discussed the roots of bigotry against Asians in the United States. Chang said racism has origins three centuries ago when Chinese laborers were brought to America. The laborers, perceived by some as taking away jobs, were described as carriers of smallpox and the bubonic plague. There were several Chinatowns that were burned to the ground.

The historian said the racism intensified with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which allowed discrimination against the Chinese, and later with the internment of Americans of Japanese heritage in camps during World War II.

Other panelists included Rise CEO and founder Amanda Nguyen, RUN AAPI’s Brad Jenkins and Anthem of Us president Anurima Bhargava.

Rowena Arguelles, CAA’s motion picture literary agent, spoke about her experience growing up as an Asian-American in San Francisco when Hollywood movies were not as diverse in casting as they are today. She recounted: “Movies have always been, at their core, about escapism. Whether it’s a small indie or a large tentpole, the power of film lies within our imagination…our ability to see what’s on-screen and find a connection to who we are, who we aspire to be and the stories we want to tell.

“So, when the character on screen doesn’t look like you, doesn’t share your race or gender or sexual orientation or lived experiences – you end up suppressing or ignoring a part of your reality in order to believe that you too are capable of stepping into those shoes. This is exactly what I did, as a Filipino girl growing up in San Francisco.

“I figured out ways to project myself into the characters of the movies I loved, whether it was Star Wars, The Breakfast Club, Superman or Flashdance. And let me tell you – it’s a lot of work. When you do get lucky enough to see people who look like you on screen, it’s only then that you realize how exhausted you are from the years spent contorting yourself to resemble characters we’re used to seeing in movies and tv shows.

“This sense of being ‘other’ and recognizing the lack of representation both in front of and behind the camera, has for me been a huge motivating factor in my work as an agent. I recognize the powerful combination of images and stories on screen. Our clients have the ability to reach so many people on a mass scale and, as a result, change and influence culture. It’s what motivates me to do what I do in support of the artists we represent, not only as an agent but also as a parent.

“When I watched Raya and the Last Dragon with my daughter, she saw, for the first time, a Disney movie starring a Southeast Asian character. She saw a heroine who looked like her. The impact that has on the next generation of moviegoers is immeasurable.”

Rowena then presented a clip in which Minari child actor Alan Kim was surprised to be introduced, via video call, to one of his idols, Emily in Paris star Ashley Park. Rowena said, “The joy Alan feels is palpable…and that joy is a reminder to us all that we need to acknowledge our rich history and our successes. Our art is a powerful tool that we can use to help combat so much of the hate we see in our communities today.”

The Asian-American agent also introduced a video showing “some of our favorite moments in popular culture,” including the Golden Globe acceptance speeches of Sandra Oh, the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Globes, and Darren Criss, the first Filipino American to win a Globe.