Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Slanted Screen

Today I watched The Slanted Screen, a documentary directed by Jeff Adachi which addresses the portrayal of Asian Americans in American cinema from the silent era to the modern era. It originally aired on PBS in 2007 and was released on DVD the same year.

The Slanted Screen covers material that is probably unfamiliar to the casual white movie goer; namely, the stereotypes of Asian Americans that have proliferated in American movies for most of film history and the absence of Asian American characters in most mainstream, Hollywood films. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of Asian Americans in Hollywood, I think it may well be true that of all the minorities they may have been mistreated the most. When they weren't being portrayed as stereotypes, they were simply invisible, not appearing in American films at all. At least Hispanic Americans and we Native Americans appeared in Westerns, albeit in very offensive, stereotypical roles.

The Slanted Screen then covers a good deal of ground, from the silent era when Asian Americans (such as both Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong)could actually play romantic leads to the Thirties, Forties, and beyond, when Asian Americans on the screen have largely been either portrayed as villains (the infamous Fu Manchu), submissive and subservient (the large number of Asian servants on film), or for laughs (the exceedingly offensive and insulting Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany's and Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles). As might be expected, the documentary devotes a great deal of time to the stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans that have proliferated in American cinema, addressing the issue of yellowface (yellowface being when a European or European American actor plays an Asian or Asian American role in make up). For positive portrayals of Asian Americans on film, The Slanted Screen focuses on the careers of some of the actors I have long admired, including Sessue Hayaykawa, Mako, Bruce Lee, and James Shigeta.

One of the best things about The Slanted Screen are the interviews with Asian Americans working in the industry, from Terence Chang to Bobby Lee. Perhaps the most insightful comments come from Mako (who after his long career was all too familiar with Hollywood's treatment of Asian Americans) and playwright Frank Chin (who has some very interesting things to say about the hatred of their own race on the part of Chinese American writers in the old days). Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa gives some good insight on why an Asian American would play a bad guy, as he did in Mortal Kombat. Quite simply, in his view it's better to play a strong bad guy than a weak stereotype!

The Slanted Screen does offer up some surprises, even for experienced film goers knowledgeable in the history of Asian Americans on screen, such as the question of whether Bruce Lee challenged stereotypes or merely created new ones. For the most part, the interviewees come down on the side of Bruce Lee, arguing that he paved the way for Asian American males to portray strong characters. Indeed, as the movie points out, Bruce Lee was the first Asian American action hero, although sadly he had to go to China to become such. Particularly interesting is the discussion of Bruce Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet. On the one hand it presented Kato as a strong Asian American male, capable of holding his own in a fight. On the other hand, he was still the valet and sidekick of a European American hero.

While I enjoyed The Slanted Screen and I believe it is a good overview of the portrayal of Asian Americans on films, I do have some problems with it. I must admit I must object to Charlie Chan being mentioned alongside such negative stereotypes as Mr. Yunioshi and Long Duk Dong. It is not as if some Asian Americans have not questioned whether Charlie Chan was truly a stereotype. As Keye Luke, who played Chan's Number One son in the films, once pointed out, "Demeaning to the race? My God! You've got a Chinese hero!" I can't remember if it was Keye Luke or Victor Sen Yung (who played the Inspector's Number Two Son) who pointed out in an interview on Today many, many years ago, the villains Chan defeated were always white! As for myself, I can see why Charlie Chan can be seen as offensive. He was always played by European or European American actors (Warner Oland was from Sweden, Sidney Toler was from Missouri, and Roland Winters was from Boston) in yellowface. He also spoke in the stereotypical, pidgin English with which Hollywood burdened characters of Chinese descent. He could be overly polite, much observant of etiquette than any of the characters of Europeans in the cast (with the possible exception of Englishmen...). At the same time, however, I must point out that Chan was over all a strong character. While he could be overly polite, he was hardly submissive. It was not unusual for him to bark commands at European and European American characters, to argue with them, and even flirt with them or tease them. In a few of the films Chan also defends his ethnicity, showing defiance towards racists. For me Charlie Chan is not an outright stereotype, but what I call a "hemistereotype" or "half stereotype." That is, he was a transitional character necessary for even more positive portrayals of the ethnicity to come. Chan has some features of the stereotype--he is played by white actors in yellowface, speaks in pidgin English, and can be overly polite--but in most ways he defies the stereotype as a brilliant, strong, and forceful Chinese American. For me he is to Asian Americans what Tonto is for we Native Americans, a transitional character who largely broke with the previous stereotype.

Beyond my disagreeing that Inspector Chan is an outright stereotype, I also had problems with omissions in The Slanted Screen. The biggest of these is that it focuses almost exclusively on Asian American males. When discussing the silent era Anna May Wong is only mentioned in passing, even though she was the first Asian American to ever play the lead in a film. Neither the Dragon Lady stereotype nor the sexualised, submissive Asian woman stereotype are addressed. Miyoshi Umeki, Rosalind Chao, and Kim Miyori are never mentioned, as are a good number of other Asian American actresses. To me, by not including the portrayal of Asian American women in Hollywood cinema, The Slanted Screen is then incomplete. It could have easily been another hour longer (the documentary is only an hour long) by addressing Asian American women in American cinema.

The documentary also omits some important figures in the history of Asian Americans on screen. Among these is George Takei. Mr. Sulu on Star Trek was a pivotal role for Asian Americans on television. While Kato on The Green Hornet was a strong character, he was still the valet and sidekick of a white hero. On the other hand, Mr. Sulu was one of the commanding officers on the starship Enterprise--in fact, I believe he was fourth in command (after Kirk, Spock, and Scotty). He broke with stereotypes in being portrayed as a three dimensional character--his interests ranged from botany to fencing to ancient weapons (like firearms...). Spock once said of Sulu that he was " heart a swashbuckler out of the 18th century." As a strong and fully developed character whose ethnicity was wholly irrelevant, he should have been mentioned, particularly since characters who would not have been possible without him (such as Harry Truman Ioki from 21 Jump Street) were.

Another omission is Pat Morita. As Arnold on Happy Days he was perhaps the first Asian American male character on an American sitcom who was not played as a stereotype. He would go onto star in the first American sitcom to centre on an Asian American character, the short lived Mr. T and Tina. There he played Taro Takahashi, a Japanese immigrant and inventor who takes in European American Tina Kelly as a boarder. Like Arnold, Mr. Takahashi was hardly a stereotype. The Slanted Screen also omits the second American sitcom to focus on an Asian American character and the first to focus on an Asian American family. All American Girl is briefly mentioned, but it should have gotten more time on the documentary. For those of you who have never heard of this sitcom, All-American Girl focused on Korean American Margaret Kim (played by Margaret Cho) and her family. All-American Girl did suffer from tampering from the producers and the network, who not only altered the premise of the show but advised Margaret Cho at different times "she wasn't acting Asian enough" or "she was acting too Asian." Still, as the second American sitcom to focus on an Asian American character and the first to focus on an Asian American family, All-American Girl would seem significant.

While I do disagree with the way the documentary addresses Charlie Chan and its obvious omissions, The Slanted Screen is a very good overview of Asian Americans in American cinema, at least Asian American males. It covers a good deal of ground in an hour and gives us some very insightful commentary from such actors as Mako, Jason Scott Lee, and James Shigeta. Whether you are familiar with the history of Asian Americans in film or unfamiliar with it, The Slanted Screen is a documentary everyone should see. I suspect it will take more than more positive roles in Hollywood films to change the portrayal of Asian Americans in movies--it will take more good documentaries on Asian Americans in film, such as The Slanted Screen, to do so as well.

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