Is ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ the Asian ‘Black Panther‘?
While differences obviously exist, a transcendent cast delivers same message to Hollywood: Diversity can equal dollars
1993. The year Jurassic Park, the first film in the original trilogy, came out. That’s the last time a major Hollywood studio released a movie with an all Asian-American cast. There hasn’t been a big-budget movie starring Asian-Americans, based in contemporary times, doing non-martial arts things since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. Think about that. No Asian Get Out. No Girls Trip. Not even a Norbit! There’ve been five Jurassic Park films during that time span and there was a nearly 14-year gap!
So, when Crazy Rich Asians opens nationwide Wednesday, many in the Asian-American community will be anticipating the release just like another recent minority-driven film that lit up social media even before obtaining global box-office domination. That film is, of course, Black Panther.
“We’re hoping for the $1 billion worldwide gross!” joked Brad Simpson, who, along with Nina Jacobson and John Penotti, produced Crazy Rich Asians. “It’s a breakthrough moment. It’s a big studio movie that is unabashedly about the Asian diaspora, the Asian-American experience.”
Let’s make this clear: Crazy Rich Asians is not the Asian Black Panther. Different genres, different messages, different budgets. There is no “Wakanda” — though there are parts of Singapore so beautifully shot you could be excused for making the mistake. If there’s a film this movie could be compared with, it’s 1988’s Coming to America. Imagine if Lisa traveled to Zamunda not knowing about Akeem’s wealth and instead of King Jaffe Joffer disapproving of their relationship, it’s Queen Aoleon. That’s essentially the story, based on Kevin Kwan’s international best-seller. So while Crazy and Panther would be like comparing Odell Beckham Jr. and LeBron James, the film crews’ rewarding experiences on both movies seem very similar.
“There was a cultural connection that all of us had with each other that’s rare. I’ve never experienced that in a movie of this magnitude before,” said actor Ken Jeong, who plays the patriarch of the scene-stealing Goh family. “All of us at some point in our careers, we’ve had parallel trajectories where we’ve always been the supporting actor, or the side character, or the one Asian character in that movie or TV show. And here were 20 of us, all together. That, to me, was sublime. You felt like you could totally be yourself on set and have people completely understand you.”
The film’s Chinese-American director, Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, the forthcoming In The Heights) admits the subtleties of the atmosphere crept up on him. “When we’re having Asian food catered on set and no one’s like, ‘Eww, what’s that smell?’ I was like, ‘Yes! We’re getting Asian food for every meal!’ There was no insecurity of that. To exist and make a big Hollywood movie that’s getting attention without having the insecurity of asking, ‘Are we going too far?’ ‘Is this too Asian?’ ‘Are we being isolated?’ None of that happened. There was something very beautiful about that.”
An established Hollywood director with eight films under his belt, Chu realized this movie became an opportunity to address Hollywood’s whitewashing issues and lack of Asian-American representation.
“It really angered me. It also made me suddenly [think], what’s wrong with Hollywood? Then realizing, ‘Oh, s—, I’m a part of Hollywood.’ ”
“I work in Hollywood, I love Hollywood, but Hollywood can be really stupid,” cracked Simpson. “If there hasn’t been another movie with a predominantly Asian-American cast as the leads, then they have nothing to compare it to and get nervous.
“When I was a studio executive coming up, I was told: ‘Here’s the thing. Girls identify with a male protagonist, but boys won’t identify with a female protagonist.’ It was communicated to me as important information that you should know,” said Jacobson, a former Disney studio executive. “There’s a lot of bias disguised as knowledge and not enough examples to prove the opposite. Every time one of these movies shows that the demand from audiences is there, people act surprised and say they’ve learned something from it, until the next time and they act surprised all over again.”
That’s why Chu & Co. insisted on bringing this film to the big screen, proving the Asian-American market is viable, and passing on Netflix’s seven-figure offer for Kwan’s entire trilogy about a wealthy Singaporean family.
“Jon and I were really conscious of creating something the younger generation could look up to and say, ‘I can do this, too. I can be a director if I want. I can be a writer, I could be an actor. It’s viable for me to be in a creative field,’ ” said Kwan, who was also executive producer and a screenwriter. “So often, Asians feel shut out of these fields.”
“There’s a message that is said when big Hollywood studios, big corporations are throwing big marketing dollars to promote something like this,” added Chu.
That message is that diversity can equal dollars.
“Diversity and inclusion used to be seen in the corporate environment as the right thing to do, and what is truer than ever, it’s good business. The right thing to do is not the point, it’s good business,” Jacobson explained. “That, plus the groundswell of voices in social media saying, ‘Why can’t I see myself on screen?’ Or ‘why can’t someone like me be behind camera?’ Those things are finally catching up with each other.”
Under Chu’s direction, Crazy doesn’t just show Asian-Americans on screen but also subtly touches on a checklist of Asian-American topics such as food, superstitions and the emasculation of Asian men. When trying to illustrate the conversations the movie can evoke, Chu alludes to an early screening in which a viewer questioned why they were speaking English in Singapore (English is the most common language in Singapore).
“I want that guy to say that to his friends and his friends harass him like, ‘What the f— are you talking about?’ He will never make that mistake again, and anyone in that group will remember that moment. I want that discussion to happen. If we give them an excuse, ‘Oh, he’s educated here, educated there.’ Suddenly they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s part of the movie, that’s not reality.’ And I’m over trying to give excuses for the existence of us.”
For all the cultural touches of Crazy Rich Asians, this is not an Asian-American studies class. It’s not Ken Burns’ The Crazy Rich Asians. This movie isn’t just for Asians. It aims to entertain you with the universal themes that made it a best-selling novel translated to more than 20 languages.
“At the center of it, that really attracted me to it, was an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time, which anyone can relate to,” explained Chu. “Any ethnicity going to their homeland and having this dual cultural identity that feels like they have to make a choice is something I always felt very alone in — then realized that’s actually not the case.”
“To me, the ultimate success is if this movie can transcend being that ‘all-Asian movie cast’ film,” said Kwan. “It’s just a great film. The end. Why do we have to qualify it? The rest of the world doesn’t see Western movies, see Mission: Impossible and go, ‘What an interesting white cast!’ They watch it, see Tom Cruise, see Ving Rhames. They’re not thinking in color. I hope we get to a point one day where people don’t see in color when it comes to Asians in film.”
Much of that future rides on the success of Crazy, which has the crew thinking like Eminem on “Lose Yourself” — if you have one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it?
“When [Jon and stars Henry Golding and Constance Wu] were going on Ellen,” Simpson said, “Jon Chu said to them: ‘Guys, don’t f— this up because the entire future of Asian-Americans in Hollywood movies rests on how you do on this show!’ He was joking, but he wasn’t really. You don’t want to be like you got your shot and f—ed it up.”