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George Takei, the actor best known for his work on Star Trek, was one of 25 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members of Asian descent who sent a letter this week to the organization protesting jokes about Asians during last month’s Oscars ceremony — a skit in which host Chris Rock introduced three children of Asian descent as Academy accountants, and comments ad-libbed by presenter Sacha Baron Cohen that insinuated that Asians have small genitalia.
An Academy spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter, “The Academy appreciates the concerns stated, and regrets that any aspect of the Oscar telecast was offensive. We are committed to doing our best to ensure that material in future shows be more culturally sensitive.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Takei spoke with THR about why he is so outraged and demands a formal apology from the Academy. (You can read a lightly edited transcript of his comments below.)
be more culturally sensitive.””]
I know that you are very proud of your Asian-American heritage, and that you just finished a run on Broadway in Allegiance, a show about a Japanese-American family that, like your own, was sent to an internment camp during World War II. What was your reaction to this year’s Oscars?
Well, it’s related to Allegiance. That chapter of American history is still little-known, and I maintain that that happened, in large part, because of the stereotypes perpetrated by the media at that time — movies, but also radio dramas and cartoons and newspaper stories and stage plays. The damage that stereotypes can do is enormous, and for the Academy that touted the Oscars as an Oscars about diversity to define the word “diversity” as black and white left me aghast. I mean, diversity means much more than black and white. It means Asian-Americans, it means Latinos, it means LGBT people, it means Native-Americans, it means — particularly in today’s context — Arab-Americans. And yet it was a show in black and white — black-and-white pictures, like going back a half-century. I was astounded at the obliviousness and the ignorance of the Academy people with regard to the notion of stereotypes. And then they perpetrated that in today’s context: They had Asian children dressed in tuxedos with briefcases as numbers-counters, which is a stereotype that Asians have today. Back in those days, we were depicted as merciless villains or obsequious servants or buffoons to be laughed at. And then, in that same skit, they talked about Asian children making computers and iPhones — har, har, har. I mean, for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is supposed to be made up of distinguished people — the elite of the motion picture industry — to be so oblivious and so ignorant of the worst stereotypes and the damage, the profound damage, that they can do? Watching the show, that just gnawed at me, and then I got on the phone with friends and fellow colleagues in the Academy and we all agreed that this is unacceptable. And since the Board [of Governors] is having a meeting today, we thought this might be a well-timed release of our letter to the Academy.
What, in your view, would be the ideal response from the Academy?
Well, number one, first of all, an apology for that shameful presentation — and then we’re gonna be watching the next Academy Awards very closely. But, more than that, it’s a commentary on the industry. The Academy can only nominate distinguished work in the motion picture business — particularly by actors, because they’re the most visible group — when they’ve had the opportunity to play the kinds of roles that would be considered for an Academy Award. So this goes back to the people that greenlight productions. There needs to be more understanding that this is a diverse, global audience that they’re playing to, and they’ve got to tell stories from the vantage point of that diversity, not just black and white. That is not the meaning of diversity; that’s going back half a century.
Do you believe that it’s actually possible, in the near future, to eradicate these types of stereotypical depictions?
Well, that is the purpose of our letter. I mean, it is to educate the people who need the education, who we assumed had the education. The word “diversity” had us all looking forward to this year’s Oscars to see how they would demonstrate diversity, and we were astounded that they were so totally oblivious to the meaning of the word. Diversity means inclusion of a pluralism of this planet and certainly pluralism of the United States. That’s their audience, and for them to be so ignorant of that and so oblivious of the damage that stereotypes do to those people, to people of that minority? I use the word “minority” because I’m saying it in the context of the United States, but globally — and our audience is global today — that audience is 60 percent Asian.
When you say “they” or “them,” what you’re really talking about is —
The motion picture industry.
Right. But weren’t these comments made by Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, not the Academy?
No, no, no, no. They had oversight of the whole thing. They knew what was going to be presented. That’s a responsibility of the Academy.
Would you like to say something to Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, too?
They needed to know better — they’re a part of the Academy and they share in the guilt of this outrageous obliviousness. Particularly African-Americans, you would think, would have some understanding of the damage that that stereotypes can do, and for African-Americans to be complicit with the whites in defining diversity as black and white was astounding.
So what happens next?
We want changes made. We are, first of all, owed an apology for this kind of demonstration, so that’s the first step. The next step is to see how they perform next year on the awards. But we also need to see how the motion picture industry behaves — they’ve got to produce the kind of product that the members of the Academy can judge as worthy of Academy consideration
If you don’t get an apology, will you call for a boycott of next year’s Oscars?
No, no, no, that doesn’t do anything. We know these people. They’re intelligent people. It was a disastrous oversight on their part. I’m sure there will be an apology. These are people that are sensitive and understanding. I mean, to not apologize for that demonstration of their total obliviousness — I don’t expect that from this group of people, either.
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