The country is agog over the new Hollywood pic Crazy Rich Asians, with its all-East Asian American cast and storyline. Along with Black Panther, this year’s African American blockbuster, this flick proves to media investors that America’s demographics and racial pride now have a dollar value. In short, whole segments of the population are demanding to see their own stories, starring their own people.
Italian Americans have had that privilege for over forty years. Arguably, we pioneered ethnic autonomy in cinema with The Godfather in 1972. In fact, that movie earned more the first week than Crazy Rich Asians ($36 million vs. $25 million). Like Crazy Rich Asians, The Godfather was based on an ethnic novel (Puzo), directed by one of our own (Coppola), with a mostly Italic cast. The only difference between the two movies is that one dispelled stereotypes the other launched them.
Critics have been effusive with praise for Crazy Rich Asians. One comment deemed it “More than a movie. This is a movement.” That movement was a long time in coming for Chinese Americans and other East Asians. While their cinema depictions have varied from evil to wise, it was who portrayed them that rankled most. Ace detective Charlie Chan was played by White actors. The Chinese saga, The Good Earth, starred mostly White actors as leads and supporting cast. Mickey Rooney is downright embarrassing as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Recently, redheaded Emma Stone was cast as a Eurasian in the movie Aloha – no use suspending disbelief for that miscasting.
Many had thought East Asians turned the corner back in 1993 with The Joy Luck Club, having an all-Asian cast. But that was a slow generational drama – old ways/new ways. Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy showcasing today’s Chinese international wealth and status – all legally gotten, we assume. The one telling criticism is that it calls attention to the Singapore Chinese as among the world’s 1 percent – a no-no to the normally self-effacing Chinese. But, the movie’s larger aim is to inform Euro-Caucasians that they have met their match. To give the movie a high octane boost, Asian American businessmen and celebrities are paying for additional screenings, giving out free tickets to Asian kids and groups.
But East Asians haven’t suffered image-wise as much as they would like us to believe. Asian American actor James Shigeta was a heart throb in the early 1960s, a positive character married to White ladies in two major movies. One movie poster screamed it out: ‘Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!’ And, though they often complain about too many Bruce Lee movies and Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid), those characters balance out the nerdy image Asians also lament. Our Hobson’s Choice is Raging Bull balancing out GoodFellas!
There is an Italian connection to Crazy Rich Asians. It was co-written by Pete Chiarelli, a writer/producer with a number of Hollywood hits. And, to get the movie off the ground, the Asian Americans went to John Penotti, President of Ivanhoe Pictures which has money ties to Korea and China. Their cousins in Asia also wanted to stick it to The Man. In one telling scene, a White hotel manager talks down to an Asian guest. She gets her revenge by buying the hotel.
As I write this, cable station AMC is running a loop of The Godfather series. One scene I caught in GF II was of a Nevada state senator using the words dago and wop in talking to Michael Corleone. How clever were Coppola and Puzo to win over the Italian American audience with an ‘us against them’ confrontation – the Corleones become our ethnic knights rather than thieves and murderers.
Those Italians who would hail these Mafia movies could be the dumbest people on the planet. They compound their detachment from reality by urging us not to complain but just make lots of positive blockbuster movies.
We await their leadership. – JLM