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Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, an interview with Nancy Wang Yuen

by Kyna Morgan of the Her Film Project

Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen's new book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, represents a major breakthrough in research into barriers faced by actors of color in Hollywood. Informed by over 100 interviews and enlightening data-based research, her book provides an in-depth examination of racism within this creative industry as well as ways in which it may be opposed and the industry made to be more inclusive. Dr. Yuen's book is published by Rutgers University Press.
HFP Your book might be the first ever to present in-depth sociological research into issues of racism in the Hollywood film industry. One issue that's being discussed with more and more frequency is the issue of 'whitewashing.' In chapter 1 ('Hollywood's Whitest') of your new book, you state that 'Hollywood creates a double standard by funneling actors of color into race-specific roles while casting white actors in every role regardless of race.' What do you make of the social, cultural, and professional roles that well-known white actors might play in this process of whitewashing, or attempted whitewashing?

NWY Whitewashing is a practice that has been around since the beginning of Hollywood. Because of institutional discrimination, actors of color have been historically barred from lead roles. This was exacerbated by the Hays code that had an anti-miscegenation clause preventing actors of color from playing roles that depicted any interracial romantic relationships. Consequently, the first cinematic depictions of people of color were white actors in blackface, brownface and yellowface. Even though the Hays code ended in 1968, whitewashing still occurs to this day. I would love to see white actors take a stance and say, hey, wouldn’t it be better if you cast actors of color to play characters of color? But ultimately, I hold producers, directors and studios accountable for decisions to whitewash characters of color.

HFP What do you consider to be the remit of the film industry, and filmmaking, as a process of cultural production? Or rather, what's the responsibility that the industry and individual filmmakers have within the culture?

NWY The industry has a responsibility to examine its institutional biases in light of research. The idea that actors of color cannot sell films or attract audiences is outdated and, frankly, racist. Research demonstrates that films and television programs reflecting the nation’s diversity do better at box offices and have higher ratings. There is no legitimate excuse to exclude people of color as leads.

HFP One issue that your book discusses is the idea that 'white,' and oftentimes, 'white male,' is the default for casting and scripts (e.g. protagonists). Could you comment on the notion that the history of film might be understood, at one level, as a history of white supremacy?

NWY Hollywood’s history is a lesson in institutional racism. Hollywood’s union admission policies have historically perpetuated a predominantly white workforce. The first unions only allowed the relatives of existing members (the majority of whom were white) into its ranks. Today, unions such as the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) and the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA) still require member endorsements and sponsorship. This inevitably leads to racial insularity because white Americans have social networks that are 91 percent white. Such biases seep into the types of stories and casting practices that occur in Hollywood—where white folks hire other white folks to tell white stories starring white actors.

HFP In a recent story on China Global Television News about the Hollywood-China connection, an Asian American actor was interviewed, and he indicated that the number of smaller roles for Asian actors could decline if big names from China are cast in fewer, but larger, more substantive roles. What do you make of the move in Hollywood to enlist Chinese or Chinese American actors in a few higher-profile roles (e.g. Chen Shu in The Martian (2015), Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang in Rogue One (2016)) as a way to bolster the box office return for Hollywood films in China? How might this affect the movement for inclusive stories and diversity of voices representing the Asian community that is building steam outside of Hollywood?

NWY I would argue that the U.S. roles for Asian actors remain small compared to the lead roles they enjoy in Asia. There was a recent article on how Chinese actors are eschewing Hollywood for the rise of the Chinese film market—where they can access more choice leads. I think Hollywood needs to draw on its Asian American talent more to bridge the gap between the United States and Asia when it comes to filmmaking. I am looking forward to Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians that will star both Asian and Asian American actors.

HFP You have a chapter in your book entitled 'Challenging Hollywood' which discusses ways in which there can be effective pushback against stereotypes in speech, costume, etcetera. Many actors such as Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, and Aziz Ansari are now showrunners and producers of their own projects. With regard to the transformation of Hollywood to be more inclusive and less dependent on racist formulae, how important would you consider actors' moves to behind the scenes work?

NWY I argue in Reel Inequality that directors and producers should work closely with actors of color to create authentic (rather than stereotyped) characters. I also argue that showrunners of color are more intentional than white showrunners in assembling diverse writing staffs and cast members. If actors of color can serve as both showrunners and leads, then all the better.

HFP Finally, what are your thoughts on the interface between the film industry and academia? How do you find the state of that relationship today, and where do you see it going?

NWY I would like to see film schools do a better job in recruiting and training writers and directors of color. They should also prepare and expand the imaginations of white writers and directors to create projects featuring leads of color. Audiences of color already drive domestic and global box offices; film schools need to prepare its graduates to succeed in a diverse world. To do so, I think that they need to rethink the film 'canon' and diversify their curricula to include works by filmmakers of color. They should also offer their students critical media courses to help them identify and correct biases within media institutions.  




Dr. Yuen is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Associate Professor at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Visit the Reel Inequality website.

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This interview was first published by Kyna's Her Film Project, 'advancing equality in film through inclusive storytelling'. 

Warm thanks to Kyna (Facebook & twitterand to Nancy Wang Yuen (Facebooktwitter).
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  1. Thanks for sharing this on your site, Marian! What a great conversation to be having!

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