“This film does not intend to demean or to ignore many of the positive features of (fill in race here) and specifically (fill in ethnicity here) communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any associations, organizations, individuals or (fill in ethnic hangout here) that exist in real life is accidental.”
A disclaimer like this at the onset of a movie nowadays would be the equivalent of a “kick me” sign, sure to get the audience hooting accusations of political correctness, cowardice or condescension.
Yet a similar disclaimer (fill in Asian-American, Chinese-American and Chinatown) ran for “Year of the Dragon, ” the 1985 Michael Cimino production starring Mickey Rourke as a cop out to squelch a criminal Chinese triad.
Ethnic casting is a prickly issue that’s been confronting Hollywood for decades, back to the days when blacks picketed D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
Hollywood has come a long way, but moviemakers still manage to offend ethnic groups when it comes to portraying villains especially, it seems, in action thrillers.
Asians protested the Chinese triads in “Lethal Weapon 4” and Asian characterizations in “Rising Sun”; Arab-Americans objected to Middle Eastern terrorists in “Executive Decision” and “True Lies.”
The protest machinery will be evident again today when “The Siege” opens. The film, directed by Edward Zwick, who helmed “Glory” and “Courage Under Fire, ” soberly explores American overreaction to a terrorist threat, including the detention of Arab-Americans in Brooklyn.
Terrorists of vague Middle Eastern origins have become the latest whipping boys in the action-adventure genre, joining post-Cold War Russians and Asians in the panorama inhabited by Mexican thugs, Indian savages, Irish gangsters, Italian mobsters and black and Latin drug dealers.
Opening the back door
Why do action films seem the most common target? Traditionally, the genre has been an avenue of entry for minorities onto the silver screen (although the “no girls allowed” sign is usually up). Also, action thrillers, by design, tend to be short on complex personalities and cultural context. And the few roles that do hold any realistic depth the flawed hero, the sympathetic villain usually go to white male actors. Minorities tend to wind up with one-dimensional roles that convey action and suspense, not subtext. And the action, it seems, speaks volumes.
“Because Hollywood works in such a visual, visceral way, a character tends to be mistaken for a group of characters, ” points out Lester Friedman, a film professor at Syracuse University. “When you have (for example) one or two Asian-American characters a year, and when both of them are negative, it creates an aura.”
Not that action flicks always turn to minorities and Third World countries for their evildoers. White-skinned, white-collar villains abound in movies. And bashing politicians and U.S. officials has become an art form. Even the U.S. president isn’t immune. He came under suspicion of murder in “Murder at 1600, ” and was the bad guy in “Absolute Power.”
To date, it appears that no major study has made a quantitative racial-background analysis of heroes’ and villains’ races. But, to be fair, such an analysis wouldn’t paint the whole picture. For one thing, playing a villain doesn’t carry the stigma it once did. Great actors such as Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Gary Oldman have won fame by oozing evil subtlety, their silken, precise voices crawling over our collective skins and making the little hairs rise.
Plus, hero/villain typecasting isn’t as rigid anymore. Sean Connery (“The Avengers”), John Travolta (“Broken Arrow”) and Tommy Lee Jones (“Under Siege”) have taken a walk on the wild side. And John Woo’s “Face/Off, ” starring Travolta and Nicolas Cage, literally made the hero and villain interchangeable. One can hardly blame an actor for bypassing a stilted, reactive hero in favor of an outrageous, creative scoundrel. Wrongdoing seems to have so many more permutations.
That said, minorities rarely get cast in either role. When they do, more often than not they’re the bad guy, cool or not. That brings up the real face of evil, according to some. Action films pull in large audiences, especially that troublesome young male demographic that’s always acting up in real-life crime statistics. If they’re looking for role models, observers complain, Hollywood’s not helping.
Hollywood’s defensiveness comes from an understandable reluctance to shoulder blame not of its making. After all, notes Randall M. Miller in his preface to “The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups”: “Filmmakers borrowed images and stereotypes that had been knocking around in literature, drama, and vaudeville. They refined them, nationalized them, and in a sense even confirmed them, but they did not invent them.”
But the film industry’s bottom-line defense tends to be about the bottom line: Big-budget action movies need big stars to fill theaters. Most of these stars tend to be white males. And minority actors, sometimes chided for accepting inconsequential or myth-perpetuating roles, say they need the work to get any exposure at all.
For some minorities, the exposure is coming. Wesley Snipes has emerged as a box-office star who can crisscross the gap between hero and villain. He had more charisma and better (Asian) martial arts moves in “Demolition Man” than the film’s hero, Sylvester Stallone. He was a hero battling his inner demons in “Blade, ” and as a homicide detective in “Murder at 1600, ” he had legal and moral superiority over the president of the United States.
Samuel L. Jackson, an acclaimed actor who has mostly worked with supporting roles or smaller movies, nabbed the lead in “The Negotiator” (even if he did he rely on Kevin Spacey to clear him of a frame). Will Smith has vaulted to blockbuster-hero status by defending not only the American way of life but universal order in “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” Denzel Washington, the Gregory Peck of the ’90s, sticks to the Everyman hero mold. His star power helped him land his latest role in “Siege, ” which originally was conceived as a white male.
But the marquees still don’t carry many Latino names. Asians fare somewhat better, though Hollywood tends to import their labor rather than cast U.S. Asian actors. Four prominent action-flick roles went to Hong Kong actors Michelle Yeoh (“Tomorrow Never Dies”), Jackie Chan (“Rush Hour”), Chow Yun-Fat (“Replacement Killers”) and Jet Li (“Lethal Weapon 4”).
Meanwhile, Hollywood is slipping more minorities and women into heroes’ support systems, although with mixed results. “Executive Decision, ” slammed for its Arab terrorists, had a rainbow coalition in camouflage suits aiding Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell. The president’s secret cabinet in “Absolute Power” included a white woman, black male and white male. The FBI force in “Face/Off” and “The Siege” both filled in the Asian woman slot, and the latter film casts Tony Shalhoub as an Arab-American assisting Denzel Washington.
It may not seem like much, but it perhaps indicates a recognition that even light entertainment carries a social conscience. After all, Hollywood doesn’t want to be cast as the bad guy forever.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times TimeOut section