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'Offensive’ Oscar jokes mobilize Asian Americans in Hollywood

by John Horn and Robert Garrova | The Frame

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Director Ang Lee accepts the Oscar for Best direting from actor Michael Douglas onstage at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Asian Americans in Hollywood want their voices to be heard. With all of the conversation surrounding #OscarsSoWhite leading up to the Academy Awards, the question was: Why would Chris Rock stoop to a joke that exploits stereotypes of Asian Americans? What’s more there was the gag about Asian males’ penis size from actor Sacha Baron Cohen.

Now, a group of Asian American members of the filmmaking community including director Ang Lee and actors Sandra Oh and George Takei have signed a protest letter asking the Academy how such “tasteless” and “offensive” skits made it into the ceremony. And it’s perfect timing, with the Academy’s board of governors meeting to look back at this year’s awards.

Janet Yang is a producer who’s worked on films such as the “Joy Luck Club” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” and she’s also an Academy member who signed the protest letter. She spoke with The Frame’s John Horn.

Why write this letter now?

Well, we — individually at first — and then we discovered collectively, all had an extremely strong reaction when we were watching the Oscars. I mean, I sat there with some friends and family and I was quite stunned and hurt and it took me a while to even digest what had just happened when we saw those two gags, both of which were really demeaning in different ways. But I think many of us had this reaction and then we just started talking to each other and I now see this as being a kind of unexpected gift because it has brought so many people together. I mean, there has been a lot of mobilization since a couple of weeks ago.

Historically, the first meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors after the Oscars telecast includes a post-mortem on the show. And if you could be in the room, beyond the letter that you wrote, what would you say about the show itself?

I would say, number one, racial diversity should mean just that, diversity. That means it applies to all races and it did feel that it fell short of that. I do understand that there were a number of wonderful African American movies this year that did not get the recognition they perhaps deserved... And I loved Chris Rock’s opening monologue and I was feeling very optimistic after hearing that. I just didn’t understand the jabs that were made against Asians. It felt very pointed... We’d like to be part of the conversation.

You were an Executive Producer on “The Joy Luck Club” which was a milestone movie in terms of Asian Americans seeing themselves depicted on screen. How difficult was it then and is it now to get a movie like that made?

... The film seemed difficult to make back then because it didn’t have a typical narrative, it was practically an all Asian cast and we didn’t have movie stars and what not. But it was made by a studio. It was greenlit for a modest sum of money and it made its money back in droves... But strangely enough it makes me very sad that there hasn’t been another movie like that focusing on Asian characters and scenes and yet seeing a wide release. So the economics of the business have changed and it’s definitely gotten much harder.

Did you see any Asian American roles or filmmakers who should have gotten Academy recognition or were there really too few to choose from?

This year I would say there were probably too few to choose from. Ang Lee did not make a movie -- he’s always the one we’re counting on. There were no Asian films in the foreign film category, so it was hard. And that’s my point exactly is that we need to do more work on the one hand on the side of creation and encouraging people to think outside the box in terms of casting... And that’s partially the issue. We did not have something we could rally around and say “What about this movie?” Last year it was “Selma” this year it was those other movies. We did not have that. And that’s why our voice is probably quiet. But quiet no more.

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