Updated May 3, 2019 with resource and reference material.
On the Hollywood food chain it seems that Asian actors are “lint” or maybe “less than lint” – to borrow a line from the 1998 movie Dave.
Like Asian actors, Black actors and actresses always lament, with good reason, the lack of roles that are offered to him. They complain about being pigeon-holed into the usual stereotypical roles such as street thugs, sexy divas, loudmouths, wife abusers and the religious matriarch. Sometimes they’re offered good roles because the casting people, fortunately, came down with a case of color-blindness
But compared to what is offered to Asian actors (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, etc.) Black actors have a plethora of acting roles. Asian actresses are mainly cast in subservient roles such as the quiet, dutiful wife or sexually-submissive girlfriend or prostitute. Sandra Oh’s strong and complex character “Dr. Yang” from the television series Grey’s Anatomy being one of the few exceptions to this rule.
Asian actors may, arguably, have more work opportunities than compared to their female counterparts, but the acting stereotypes are still there. Asian males are chosen to play roles that require them to be martial art experts, lords of wisdom, honor-bound samurais, extremely-strict fathers or stressed-out, academic over-achievers with nerd-like qualities. Mostly they’re cast as what I refer to as the “Five O’s”: obstinate fathers, omnipotent fighters, overly dutiful sons, obsequious man-servants or old wise men.
But for a brief moment in 1993 there was an Asian actor, Jason Scott Lee, who could have become a major star. Within a two-month period of that year he was in two films – a romantic drama as a WWII pilot the other as the iconic actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee (no relation). The latter film did cast him as an Asian playing a famous Asian, but he was so much more than that as an actor. He should’ve been so much more.
Unfortunately, Hollywood just wasn’t ready. Hell, it still isn’t ready, though Asian actors keep trying. But sometimes I’m sure they feel like Sisyphus with that damn rock – constantly pushing at it, only for it to roll down and over them time and again.
In the Not So Distant Beginning
Most of us have seen one or more racist Asian stereotypes in movies and films during our lifetime. I can’t recall the first one that I saw, but there are some I haven’t forgotten. Mickey Rooney’s visually and stereotypically buffoonish and obviously myopic Chinese servant in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Gedde Watanabe cringe-worthy role in Sixteen Candles as the Chinese exchange student whose English and social skills are child-like and idiotic.
Of course there was also David Carradine in the television series Kung Fu as “Kwai Chang Caine” an Amerasian shaolin monk skilled in Buddhism and martial arts spreading his mysticism throughout the American West. “Kwai” was originally written to be Chinese and was to star Bruce Lee who had cut his teeth in television as martial arts crime fighter “Kato” in the Green Hornet. Not surprisingly, Lee ended up going overseas in order to become a ‘star’ in Hollywood, albeit a posthumous one.
It has still been a very tough road for Asian actors since Bruce Lee. Over the past twenty to thirty years a select few East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) actors born in or outside the U.S. have entered the entertainment mainstream via television and/or feature films with various levels of visibility and success. Actors such as Chow Yun Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Jackie Chan (Rush Hour films), Jet Li (Romeo Must Die), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O), Russell Wong (Joy Luck Club), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and John Cho (Harold & Kumar films)
However, most owe their career livelihood to the martial arts and/or action-film genre. Asian male actors who can’t, won’t or don’t do martial arts exclusively – who primarily just ‘act’ seem to be few and far in between.
Back in the late 1980s Jason Scott Lee (JSL), an American actor of Chinese-Hawaiian descent was probably aware of the Hollywood odds. He started with small roles in television series such as Matlock and Wolf. He lucked out with a few television movies and small-to-major films such as The Lookalike, Born in East L.A. and Back To The Future II.
According to Internet Movie Database, JSL had acting gigs in only nine television and movies between 1987 and 1993, with 1993 being his breakout year. However, things were about to change, at least they should have changed, according to every happy-ever-after story in Hollywood.
A Double Film Slam Dunk
In April 1993 a small film called Map of the Human Heart was released which was followed in May by Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Both films happened to star JSL in lead roles.
Map of the Human Heart was a romantic drama that takes place in the 1930s in which JSL played Avik, a Canadian Innuit who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force as a bomber pilot. The film revolves around his childhood then adult love for a French-Indian girl played by Anne Parillaud and the impact of his WWII actions – especially the firebombing of Dresden, Germany – had on his emotional well-being after the war. In the film you get to see JSL in various stages of his life, as a cocky pilot, man in love, shell-shocked war veteran and a despondent alcoholic. One of the stand-out scenes in the film is of Jason Scott Lee and Parillaud naked, making love on top of a barrage balloon. Seeing an Asian male actor in such an obviously romantic film scene is a rare occurrence.
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said that JSL ” brings a joy and freshness to the early scenes, and makes a good contrast to the older Avik, who has lost his way.” Ebert concluded that ‘Map of the Human Heart’ was “one of the year’s (1993) best films” and gave it four stars. The film only made little over $2 million, but it was critically-acclaimed and JSL received excellent reviews.
A month later JSL was on the screen again in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. The film was based on the book Bruce Lee: The Man I Only Knew by his widow, Linda Lee Caldwell. The semi-biographical film chronicled Bruce Lee’s childhood and young adult years in Hong Kong (though he was born in the U.S.); his move to San Francisco, going to college, meeting his wife and having a family, creating the martial art Jeet Kuen Do and his television and film work up until his death after filming Enter the Dragon, a marital arts classic. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story had an epic Hollywood biographical tone that played a bit loose with the facts (i.e. he hurt his back lifting weights, not in a battle defending his martial arts creation). However, it also delved into the racial hardships Lee faced as an Asian-American trying to become an American success story.
JSL struck the right tone for the movie which showed his physical prowess (he learned martial arts for the film), comedic timing, dramatic skills all while handling a love story. The film did well, pulling in $35 million at the box-office – a much better haul than Map of the Human Heart.
Roger Ebert said JSL was a “gifted young actor” who like Bruce Lee “use film to give them power over time and space.” Desson Howe of the Washington Post said it’s “[JSL’s] acting that makes “Dragon” so watchable – that “[w]ith a personality like firecrackers, he charms and crackles his way through this movie.”
One can’t help but think that parts of Jason Scott Lee’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Dragon reflected his own experiences dealing with racism. Yes, the movie wasn’t completely accurate in its telling of Lee’s story, but JSL made you believe you were watching Bruce Lee. Jason Scott Lee is powerful and electric in the scene (video below) in which, as Bruce Lee, he rages against Hollywood’s racist treatment of him and Asian actors. You can’t help but wonder if some of JSL’s experience with Hollywood helped him bring such anger, passion and hurt to the climatic scene.
Pete Rainer of the Los Angeles Times summed up what most movie critics and film goers thought of JSL at that time”:
“What’s exciting about “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” is that, in Jason Scott Lee, the movie has created a new star out of an old star. The film is a tribute to Bruce Lee but it’s also a tribute to the transforming powers of performance. Lee does justice to Bruce Lee while, at the same time, creating a character out of his own fierce resources. He is, quite literally, smashing.”
After I saw both of these films I kept my eye on Jason Scott Lee, hoping against hope that he would blow-up, big-time on the silver screen. I remembered how Daniel Day-Lewis in 1985-1986 had an actor’s year similar to JSL. Daniel Day-Lewis played played a working-class, gay man in an interracial relationship in My Beautiful Laundrette and then followed that up with a role as a proper upper -class gentleman in Room With A View. Hollywood definitely took notice of Day-Lewis’ diverse acting skills. Maybe the same could happen to Jason Scott Lee.
In reality, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Jason Scott Lee probably knew it too.
Sound and Fury – Then Nothing
After the banner year of 1993 things were pretty quiet work-wise for Jason Scott Lee. Between 1994 and 2013 he was cast in approximately 25 roles, mostly small parts in television shows (The Hunger, Hawaii Five-0), voice-over work (Lilo & Stitich), low budget-films (Tale of the Mummy) and straight-to-video films (Timecop:The Berlin Decision).
He had some screen time in four big-budget films during this period; two of which he was the lead actor – 1994’s Rapa Nui and The Jungle Book. He played an Eastern Island warrior finding love amidst a civil war and a jungle boy raised by wolves, respectively. Not much of a casting stretch for Hollywood. As for the cinematic quality of these films – the less said about them the better.
After Rapa Nui and Jungle Book he didn’t work for three years. Whether this was on purpose or not, it’s hard to determine. Maybe Jason Scott Lee had simply had enough. In between his sporadic television and film work JSL kept busy with local Hawaiian theater, personal documentaries and working on his martial arts skills
Unfortunately what happened to Jason Scott Lee happens to a lot of actors, Asians and non-Asians, so it’s nothing new. But it’s still a shame nonetheless, given his talent.
In December 2010 Jason Scott Lee was interviewed by Guy Aoki, writer for Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles Japanese News Daily. Aoki asked JSL if he had been too “selective” in the mid-1990s about the type of roles he wanted. JSL said:
“Back in the ’90s, my effort was to do films with meaningful content, which I believe is still the goal of many artists in Hollywood. For an Asian American actor, it’s that much more difficult. I had a tough time back then accepting the redundant action hero opportunities that were placed before me. It now makes me realize that ‘Dragon’ was somewhat before its time, and trying to find a challenge that would capitalize on that performance was completely non-existent. I’m hoping to find positive challenges in the current situation of movie making.”
I have watched Map of the Human Heart and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story several times over the years. I still shake my head at Hollywood’s missed opportunity. It almost makes you want to keep your fingers crossed for every ‘person of color’ actor and actress trying to make it in Hollywood because the opportunities are few and the chances for success are even fewer.
Most don’t make it or if they do, they end up catching fire quickly or only for a moment. But then the embers don’t last and the smoke eventually goes away. Just ask Jason Scott Lee.
Notes: 1) You can watch Map of the Human Heart in its entirety here and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story here. 2) In this 2016 CGTN America video, Jason Scott Lee talks about whitewashing (casting of white actors in Asian roles) in Hollywood.3) In 2019, Actress Sandra Oh is the first woman of Asian descent in thirty-nine years to win a Best Actress Golden Globe for a television drama series (‘Killing Eve’).
Actors of Color on Racial Stereotypes (Film Courage) – A seven-part video series in which you hear from Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American men and women discussing their journey, frustrations, surprises and heartaches as they navigate being an actor/actress of color in Hollywood whose default casting is always white.
Black Actors Are Too Often Overlooked. It’s Even Worse for Other Ethnic Minorities (The Guardian) – A British/Asian perspective on the difficulties actors of color in England have in getting work, especially since, according to research by the British Film Institute “[60%] of British films made in the past 10 years [2005-2015] featured no named characters portrayed by black actors. Just 13% starred a black actor in a leading role.”
11 Stereotypes Black Actors Must Play Laid Out in One Scathing Takedown (IndieWire) – “Mamoudou N’Diaye has no need to make an audition reel; the actor has perfected every role he will ever need to play in Hollywood. In a hilarious and scathing parody for Mic, N’Diaye runs through the offensive and reductive stereotypes that too often pigeonhole black talent.”
For Older Actors of Color, The Movement for A More Diverse Hollywood Has Come Too Late (Washington Post) – Jenifer Lewis (Black-ish) discusses being an older actress of color in the era of Hollywood’s trumpeted march towards diversification. The noteworthy comment in the article is when Lewis is asked if actresses like herself “feel reflected” in such diversity efforts. She said “not particularly” because nonwhite actresses of her generation have “no real voice.”
Forget Playing Terrorist No. 3. Middle Eastern Actors Seek Roles Beyond Hollywood Stereotypes (Los Angeles Times) – “Actors, especially those from Africa and Arab states, often contend with Western screenwriters and studios that have reduced a complex world to cursory and at times racist story lines that seldom differentiate between a Shiite or a Sunni Muslim, much less between a Pakistani or a Kuwaiti.”
From Breakfast At Tiffany’s to Hellboy: The Ongoing Problem of Hollywood ‘Whitewashing‘ (Independent) – “Whitewashing is not new. It was a common practice in classical Hollywood, where some of its most egregious examples include John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror and Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audiences know instinctively that whitewashing is bad – hence the criticisms of other whitewashing films and the resulting hashtag #StarringJohnCho that went viral in spring 2016. As a cultural practice, having white people play, replace and stereotype characters of colour obscures and erases their history, agency and power.”
Hollywood Diversity Report 2018: Five Years of Progress and Missed Opportunities (UCLA College of Social Sciences) – The university’s latest annual report which “[examines] relationships between diversity and the bottom line in the Hollywood entertainment industry. It considers the top 200 theatrical film releases in 2016 and 1,251 broadcast, cable and digital platform television shows from the 2015-16 season in order to document the degree to which women and people of color are present in front of and behind the camera. It discusses any patterns between these findings and box office receipts and audience ratings.”
Hollywood Movies Still Stereotype LGBT Characters, Depict ‘Gay Panic Scenes’ (The Wrap) – Article discusses how lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender characters are mostly missing-in-action in films, and when they do appear it’s for laughs or fear of gay people or being viewed as being gay. “Leaving LGBT people out of the picture — or including them only as a punchline — keeps old prejudices alive and creates an unsafe environment, not only here in America, but around the world,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis in an introduction to the annual Studio Responsibility Index.”
Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia) – Concise and digestible research paper that “[identifies] seven historical racial stereotypes of African-Americans and demonstrate that many of these distorted images still exist in society today. Additionally, strategies for intervention and the implications of this exploration into racial stereotypes will be presented.”
‘We’re the geeks, the prostitutes’: Asian American Actors on Hollywood’s Barriers (The Guardian) – “While much of the recent debate around Asian representation in Hollywood has centered on whitewashing – when white actors are cast to tell Asian stories – working actors said a lack of opportunity was only one part of the problem. Asian American actors said they rarely, if ever, got auditions for leading roles, and when they did get parts, they were frequently secondary to the plot or portrayed offensive tropes.”
Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television? (New York Times) – “A study by multiple universities reported that, over a one-year period, of the 242 scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming TV, just one-third had a series regular who was Asian-American or Pacific Islander. These are shows, mind you, set in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, which all have significant Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations (33 percent, 12 percent and 24 percent, respectively). And another report by the U.S.C. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative stated that of the top 100 films of last year, 37 didn’t include a single Asian character with a speaking role.”
Why I Won’t Wear War Paint and Feathers In A Movie Again (Time) – Actor Brian Young (Navajo) discusses his experience in Hollywood and the industry’s racist history when portraying Native Americans.
Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood (Vox) – The video provides a nice overview of Hollywood’s history of casting whites as Asians in its movies. As the video states “Scarlett Johansson’s casting in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is just one of the latest examples of a white actor playing an Asian character, a practice that goes back to the earliest days of Hollywood. These casting decisions have made Asians invisible at best and, at worst, the butt of a cruel joke.”