"Close," he replied when I asked. "I'm from Uganda."
As we discussed politics, we veered towards other topics, like my writing film reviews. Glancing at me sideways, he asked what I thought about The Last King of Scotland. I rolled my eyes before responding, "It was very Hollywood, wasn't it?" adding, "But what do you think? You're Ugandan. Was that a factual story about Idi Amin or even about Ugandans in general?"
The man, Vincent, shook his head. It's not that I don't believe Amin wasn't a brutal dictator, but some of the scenes just made me throw my hands up in disbelief. It's like when The Last Samurai, or Memoirs of a Geisha, was released. I just about gagged watching Tom Cruise's character become an overnight samurai. Come on now, we're talking about a privileged class of people in feudal Japan that one had to be born into. And, here was this goofy gaijin only six months into Japan and already fluent in the language! (Shades of Richard Chamberlin in Shogun.) You could've knocked me over with an udon noodle. Here, I've known my Japanese mother for decades (let's not discuss how many), who speaks a mishmash of broken English and Japanese to me, and I'm nowhere near fluent. Just because you're an Asianphile doesn't mean you're Asian!
As for Memoirs of a Geisha...three modern Chinese actresses playing very culturally specific roles that takes even Japanese women who aspire to such a career years of careful preparation. Need I say more? (Sorry to dis you Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh! I'm a huge fan of both, but...)
The question is why does Hollywood feel entitled to take such liberties with inaccurate portrayals of a people, or a culture, or a race that they don't intimately know. The answer's simple. Because they can.
I remember once complaining to the editor of a screenwriters magazine about Tina Fey. He had organized a Q&A with her following a screening of Mean Girls which she wrote. After seeing the film, I was livid that all the Asian American high school kids had thick accents and even spoke some Asian language, Vietnamese, I believe. So, I mentioned to the organizer how appalled I was by those scenes. Instead of asking me to substantiate my claims about Fey creating stereotypical images of Asian Americans, he dismissed me by telling me I was wrong. Further, he added, the Asian Americans in the film were authentic and Tina Fey had them pegged because a lot of Asians in high school aren't Native English speakers and would revert to their own language when fighting with other students--in California! Now, hold up. Do you need an instant replay of that?
This organizer, by the way, is not Asian American (he's Jewish), and Tina Fey certainly isn't Asian American, but I am--at least half of me is--and I was told point blank that both of them know more about Asian Americans than I do. How, exactly, does that work? Should I write a script based on Jewish or Caucasian American characters and when a representative from their group tells me they are offended by my inaccuracy, argue with them?
In times like this, the realization hits home. We are truly the minority because if we had any kind of pull at all, Hollywood would not be able to cast Angelina Jolie in blackface to play a mixed-race black woman in 2007 (A Mighty Heart). But it goes beyond actors because until writers and directors of color are as visible as minority movie stars, we are just not going to get our authentic stories onto the silver screen.
Something that's been really bugging me is the glut of documentaries about impoverished folks, mostly of color, around the globe that are rarely made by people of color. But when you think about it, that makes sense. Who can afford to go to film school these days? Few people of color. And even if their families do have money, the kids aren't encouraged to pursue arts because there's the perception (especially in Asian families) that making movies is not real work or that it has no fixed future. So, we get a proliferation of white filmmakers who not only have the technical know-how to make movies, but who also have the opportunity to make the all-important contacts that will propel them into careers either with the studios or with independent producers--a growing force. It is they who ultimately make decisions about how we, so-called ethnics, are portrayed onscreen which, in turn, is how the world will perceive us.
Several years ago, I was in Honolulu when former Tri-Star/Columbia producer Christopher Lee hosted the writers and director of Final Fanstasy for a talk at University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Of course, being studio guys, they were all white. And, young. And, male. As they looked out over the audience of locals (mostly Asian, Asian-mixed, Polynesian and Melanesian folks), one of them said, "You guys should be telling your own stories." I snickered. He said it so matter-of-fact, as if we had the resources and connections, as if we'd even be allowed. But wait, you say M. Night Shyamalan is a Hollywood fixture and he's a minority and he's telling his own stories. Oh, yeah? What kind of stories? True life depictions of the Indian American experience? I think not. That would be left to a white filmmaker who, picking up a camera and some grant money, visits M. Night's family and soon produces a documentary of epic proportions like, dare I say it, Born Into Brothels.
Even though I give it props for being a spectacular doc with an amazing story, some scenes in it veered so closely to a "big white filmmaker saves little darky pickaninnies" theme that it made me downright uncomfortable. After all, what could a British Caucasian woman (the co-producer seen onscreen) know about the souls of the Indian children whose lives she uncovered? It was her country that colonized them, thus, contributing to their current state of being. But to be fair, I think the film exposes some very important issues about Calcutta's redlight district children of prostitutes. And, I happily salute the filmmakers for giving those children hope and visibility. So did the Academy which awarded them an Oscar. Still, I felt a sense of entitled opportunity in Zana Briksi's efforts; some feeling of "let's film some impoverished children in an emerging nation or third world country" flavor-of-the-month bid that made me cringe. That's when I wondered had a native made the documentary instead, with an imprint stamped "authentic", would s/he had been able to create a film that didn't come across so anthropological and studied as if s/he had been standing at arms length? And, would that native filmmaker been able to raise the kind of funds or garner the kind of publicity and accolades that the Caucasian filmmakers did?
All that wondering contributed to my pleasure upon recently viewing a documentary called Lakshmi and Me. Made by an Indian filmmaker, the story about her maid is so in-your-face, there's no doubt it's all real. But, the true tenderness of the filmmaker is in her humble admittance of her role as oppressor by virtue of her higher caste--something I doubt Briski and company is capable of acknowledging about themselves.
Which leads me to this: We need to start a movement, and that movement will be Hapawood. It's time to overthrow Hollywood and create our own. If you've been reading me for awhile, you know that I believe the word hapa is just a Hawai'ian mispronunciation for the word half and all of us blendies and mixies should call ourselves that. Now that we have a name we should build on it. I've already created the t-shirt (http://www.cafepress.com/hapateez) so let us begin by writing and producing our own films about hapas. All we need is a sound plan, a solid foundation, and a commitment to cohesiveness and authenticity.
Let me know. Hollah.
Your Hip Hapa,
Before I could finish writing this blog, I got an email from Anzu Lawson. Half Japanese herself, she's performing a reading of her script Full On this Sunday afternoon. If you're in L.A., stop by Raleigh Studios at 4 pm for the Screen Play Lab and an authentic hapa experience. That's Anzu, above, singing hapa birthday to me a few years ago at my favorite Santa Monica Thai Restaurant--Siam Place.