This piece is written by Carly Quellman, one of Spicy‘s Guest Contributors. Carly is new to the Brooklyn scene, having moved to New York from California in the beginning of August. Carly is now settled in Brooklyn, NY, as a freelance writer, sustainable beauty guru and avid traveling queen. You can find her recapping all things New York (and beyond) on her website, Q-THENAMLY, or conversing with BlackTwitter @carlyquellman.
I saw Warner Brothers’ newest flick, Crazy Rich Asians, last week. For how many articles I’ve read praising Hollywood’s first soley-Asian cast in 25 years (the former being Wayne Wong’s Joy Luck Club), I was shocked at its skin-deep impact. It’s wonderful that Jon M. Chu, the movie’s director, realized that Asians, too, need inclusivity and wanted to showcase Asians as more than their assumed stereotypes. I agree! But a $6 AMC Tuesday ticket and 40 minute subway ride later, I needed to sit down and expel the opinions I have of the two-week-old box-office phenomenon.
As I sat there watching the previews (which usually thematically coincide with the feature presentation), I wondered why I was watching trailers for upcoming Disney movies at 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night. Maybe that was my mistake. Crazy Rich Asians is the first book in a three-part series. Call me a truly lazy, Gen-Z Millennial if you will, but I didn’t read the film-adapted book by Kevin Kwan prior to viewing. With the overwhelming praise for the movie’s diversity, matched with a bubbly romantic-comedy slant, I didn’t feel the need to read. Additionally, labeling a movie as “rom-com” isn’t telling of much these days, as the comedy genre has evolved over the years. For example, this summer has been monumental for minority-led movies at the box office. Insightful blockbuster hits like, Sorry to Bother You, the Boots Riley-directed dark comedy with a pronounced all-too-familiar allegory and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, the based-on-a-true-story dramatic-comedy about a 1970s Black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, set a thematic precedent. I assumed that following these two movies, Crazy Rich Asians’ release date was not coincidence, but a smooth segway into another racially-inclined, transparent film. In reality, it’s not that deep.
Crazy Rich Asians went wrong when it comically represented the same negative stereotypes its culture is trying to distance itself from. Comedian Ken Jeong is cast as Wye Mun, a perverted, oddly-controversial code-switching father to Peik Lin, an outspoken, eclectic character played by New York-based Asian-American rapper Awkwafina. Constance Wu (Rachel Chu) and Henry Golding (Nick Young) are cast as the movie’s leads. The two characters represent your everyday perfect, in-love couple, except after a year of dating, Rachel is naive to Nick’s family’s economic status. Additionally, Nick, who is racially ambiguous, also has an English accent. I’m confused. Crazy Rich Asians’ characters mock the point of having an unanimously-Asian cast. Wasn’t this movie coined as representation — truthful and unbiased representation? In an interview with “The Hollywood Reporter,” Awkwafina deemed the level of diversity and inclusivity within Crazy Rich Asians comparative to that of Get Out. Crazy Rich Asians was adapted from a fictional book. Get Out is a parody influenced by the hard, saddened truth of Black America’s everyday lives. We laugh instead of cry. We use our art to convey our frustration. There is no similarity between the two movies, especially when comparing the depth of works to their context. Whether my frustration is intended for Kwan, Chu or Awkwafina, I can’t decide, but I do find fault in each of their actual and imagined themes.
My problem with this movie has a lot less to do with the plot and a lot more to do with the depiction of Asian-Americans and its controversial thematic elements (or lack-thereof). The movie’s synopsis is like any other romantic comedy you’ve seen: a relatable, predictable protagonist, a protective, stubborn mother as the antagonist, several supportive characters to add entertaining elements, plus a token “diversity” element with the always-fashion-forward LGBTQIA member. Oh, and don’t forget the “mean ex-girlfriend” plotting revenge. Crazy Rich Asians is similar to a PG-13 version of a Disney movie (though, Disney has yet to openly showcase that kind of diversity). Throw in a couple of shirtless bods and sappy heartfelt moments, and you have the making of any other romantic comedy… except, with Asians. But that’s the point though, right?
I can relate to the lack of acceptance in (White) America. I can relate to needing representation of one’s culture and racial identity. However, I’m aware that Crazy Rich Asians’ imagery and language will only subsequently broaden society’s narrow scope. While it’s relieving to watch a movie where Asian-casted characters aren’t involved in martial arts or mathematical equations, the pronounced stereotypes presented in Crazy Rich Asians overshadow the rich, profound diversity within Asian culture. Painting over problematic prejudices with a cinematic Cinderella-esque premise doesn’t help to dissolve systematic problems; it mimics and taunts them. As an African-American woman, perhaps my stance isn’t necessary. But I can’t help but remind myself that in this day and age, everything means something. Every symbolic, thematic idiom holds some value to those engaging with it. So while Crazy Rich Asians accurately personifies racial exclusion between Asians and Asian-Americans, it’s difficult to empathize. Because I, too, know of racial constructs… right here, in America. Every damn day.