Asian-American Actresses Discuss 'Ghost in the Shell,' Oscars Controversies

C-100 Asian Americans in Hollywood panel - Publicity - H 2016
Committee of 100 and BeBe Jacob

C-100 Asian Americans in Hollywood panel - Publicity - H 2016

Constance Wu, Ming-Na Wen and Joan Chen sounded off during a panel addressing issues facing Asian-Americans in Hollywood.

Several Asian-American leading ladies have spoken out on the latest instance of Hollywood whitewashing — and they don't all feel the same way.

During a luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire on Saturday, Agents of SHIELD's Ming-Na Wen and Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu shared their reactions to the first image of Scarlett Johansson as Ghost in the Shell heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi.

"It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look more Asian," said Wu of the reports (which Paramount has denied) that the studio employed a visual-effects firm to alter Johansson's appearance. "Some people call it 'yellowface,' but I say 'the practice of blackface employed on Asians' because that's more evocative."

Wu explained that the problem with the reported tests is that "it reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look."

Wen said that although she had already heard about Johansson's casting, seeing the image "with her Asian-esque haircut" prompted her to tweet, "Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I'm a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role."

The tweet went somewhat viral, which Wen said made her feel "happy and afraid, because to get back on the soapbox is scary, but I feel I need to. It's about accepting that part of the job."

But not everyone on the panel, which was organized by the Chinese-American nonpartisan group Committee of 100, saw the casting as controversial. Screen legend Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Netflix's Marco Polo) argued that the film's director (Snow White and the Huntsman's Rupert Sanders) should have "creative freedom," which led to a spirited debate on the panel, which also included actress Lynn Chen and was moderated by producer Teddy Zee (The Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch).

"The Chinese and Japanese have adapted many works from the West," Joan Chen said, referencing Akira Kurosawa's Shakespearean adaptations. "I cannot blame the director. Censorship is terrible for art."

"Agreed, but many people's vision of who they see as a hero is rooted in systemic racism," Wu countered. "It's not blaming; it's asking for awareness. It's good for artists to think outside the box and stretch their imagination."

"Whitewashing will continue if Hollywood thinks it's OK," Wen added, noting examples from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's to Emma Stone in Aloha. "The fight is exhausting: two steps forward, 10 steps back. But it will continue because we don't voice our opinions and band together to say this is wrong."

Chen explained in a later session that her experiences growing up in China (the other actors on the panel were raised Stateside) have deeply impacted her perspective. She came of age in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed family, friends and neighbors thrown into turmoil as a result of the Communist Party's actions. "Because of this background, I'm always leery of political correctness that might stifle freedom of speech," she said.

The panelists also sounded off on the Asian jokes at the Oscars. Zee, an Academy member who was one of the 25 signatories of the letter that was delivered to the Academy last month, noted that in a year dominated by "Oscars So White" awareness, "our Asian representation onstage amounted to three kids dressed as accountants and that 'tiny, yellow Minions' joke."

"Oscar season usually is depressing for me because I'm not working, so I'm watching other people's dreams come true," Lynn Chen said. "This year I was just dropped by my theatrical manager, so I was feeling especially rejected by the industry. When I saw the Oscar jokes, it was the first time I felt this force, like, 'They're against us.'"

Wu said she opted to watch the Justice for Flint benefit instead of the Academy Awards because "you vote with your attention," and was heartbroken when she watched the clips from the ceremony. "It was indicative of a diseased system," she said. "We're asked to be grateful for scraps, because that's all we friggin' get."

"We're easy targets," Wen agreed. "It's not in our nature to speak up and voice our concerns. That needs to change. We need to emulate the African-American community, whether through fear, being loud, or humor."

On Oscar night she posted a now-deleted tweet about host Chris Rock's lack of inclusivity when it came to Asians, which led to "so much flak. 'Why do we have to fight your fight?' I understand now. That's why I'm here on this panel. I'm trying to employ as many Asian-Americans as possible to start thinking this way: We have to fight our own fight."

Joan Chen admitted she was one of the few Asian members of the Academy who declined to sign the letter. "Perhaps it's because I'm an immigrant, but I didn't feel that vulnerability," she said. "At least [Asians] were appearing onstage. But my colleagues' hurt is valid. The danger of stereotypes lies in their incompleteness. The best way to repudiate their one-dimensional story is by telling 1,001 of our own. It's easier to protest than to create a show."

"Making your own work is a type of protest," said Wu, adding that she turned down a role in a big movie last summer to travel to the Sundance Directors Lab on her own dime and participate in the projects of two young Asian-American filmmakers. "Community matters more than personal success."

April 20, 1:15 p.m. The original version of this article's headline misrepresented the context of Constance Wu's quote about "blackface."