What Asian American Oscar Victories Mean for All of Us
By Emil Guillermo
After the Oscars, when Asian Americans were everywhere on the winners list, from actors, writers, directors, but also makeup artists, and not just in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” but also in movies like “The Whale,” I turn to the Oakland playwright Ishmael Reed who must be wondering will Asian Americans now go for the Whiteness Prize?
(I consider Asian American to be a generic term, indicating people of Asian descent either living or working not necessarily indicative of their citizenship status.)
I’m in New York as an actor in “The Conductor,” the latest Reed production now off-Broadway (get your in-person or live-streamed tickets here: https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-conductor-2023/).
I play a brown-skinned Tucker Carlson-type on a faux Fox, and very conservative news network.
That’s how good an actor I am!
As an Asian American sometime-actor, I’m gratified to see Asian American creatives take their historic star turn at the Oscars. Asians have won the Academy Award for best supporting actor before, but never has there been a best actor/actress winner until the Malaysia-born, Hollywood-based Michelle Yeoh last weekend.
There’s something about being a “first.” A “never before.”
But what’s next?
And that’s where Reed’s play got me thinking.
In Reed’s “The Conductor,” Blacks start a new underground railroad to help Indian Americans — not American Indians, but those from the continent of India — escape a wave of xenophobia that is forcing them to flee to Canada.
The main character, columnist Warren Chipp is Reed’s alter ego. When a conservative Indian seeks refuge and asks Chipp why the liberal Chipp is being so nice to him, Chipp reveals his grasp of irony.
“Minorities make alliances with us (Blacks) until their admission to the white club is accepted. This happened to the Jews, the Japanese, the Irish, the Italians and now you guys (Asian Indians).”
It’s just one of the provocative asides in the play, but the historical examples are there.
Says Chipp/Reed: “These groups come running to us when the white man decides to sic mobs on them because of some geopolitical conflict or culture war. Begging us to hide them and save them. And then, when they get an ‘all-clear’ sign, they return to auditioning for whiteness again. Lining up and trampling over each other, asking white people to ‘choose me!’ Some of them even change their names to go Anglo.”
Reed says it’s the root of “Afro-Pessimism.”
It’s a term by Frank Wilderson, as Reed explains, that means Blacks can’t depend upon Blacks’ “junior allies.” Wilderson calls B.S. on intersectionality and says that Blacks “must go it alone.”
After rehearsals and the first four performances, the passages from the play haunt me.
Especially last Sunday. When the Asian Americans were preparing for their Oscar turn, I was off-Broadway living Reed’s play.
Is the Model Minority now back to auditioning for whiteness again?
I hope not. I get what Reed’s saying in his play. But I see the Oscar victory as a win for not just Asian Americans but all BIPOC communities in all their unique narratives.
AAPI stories have a kind of heat now. An independent film about a family with a laundromat dealing with the IRS and the multiverse where people have hotdogs as fingers puts us in a whole new ballgame.
We aren’t so weird after all. We’re of immigrant descent, sure. We’re different, yes. But we’re of the modern world and our stories deal in universal truths.
People flocked to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which gave it some cache as an indie project that was making money. Not like “Top Gun” money, but enough to satisfy Hollywood accountants. Once it caught the attention of the Academy looking for diversity, the film was simply recognized for its off-beat ingenuity and its creative weirdness.
I was having lunch in New York’s Chinatown with a lawyer friend of mine, a Chinese American immigrant and also a triple Harvard (College, Law School, and MBA) graduate. My friend surprised me when he said he couldn’t understand the hype about “Everything, Everywhere…”
He called it unwatchable. He liked the movie “Tar.”
I told him maybe it was generational. Just goes to show you that not everyone, not even Asian Americans are on board with “Everything, Everywhere…”
But the huge victory on Sunday makes the film like a Golden Spike in Hollywood. The track is finally connected and open for AAPI creatives bound for glory.
“Everything, Everywhere…” has put everyone in the equation on notice. We have stories to tell that sell, and that people want to see.
Stories that win Oscars.
I see the phenomenon as a rising Asian American film lifts all boats. And with AAPI at just over 6% of the population, I don’t buy the “Afro-Pessimism” idea in his play.
We can’t go it alone. We don’t have the numbers. We need each other.
Like anything worthwhile, it’s going to have to be done together.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. See his vlog on http://www.amok.com And see “The Conductor” in person or live-streamed tickets here: https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-conductor-2023/
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