Tuesday, March 14, 2006

APAs, Film & The Problem with CRASH

Here's a something I replied to on a list I receive...

Please read on for my responses. -jp


Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2006 09:52:29 -0800
From: "Arnold Marquez"
Subject: "CRASH is racist towards Asian Americans"

Hello Folks,

Things seem quiet, so I thought I'd stir the pot a little...

The following is a post from a forum I frequent; I've removed the poster's
identity (it wasn't me). Because I haven't heard anyone else complain about
CRASH, and AA-Drama subscribers are among the most connected Asian Americans
as regards Hollywood, I wondered if anyone wanted to offer anything in


Arnold Marquez

I didn't see Brokeback Mountain, but I did see Crash. At the end of the movie,
I couldn't help but think why Asian Americans are once again portrayed as
evil, weak and immoral. Yet, all the other races (black, Hispanic, white and
Arabs) are seen as basically good with some minor human faults.

This is my take on the situation:

Whites are the majority in this country, thus they are naturally portrayed as
fundamentally good. As far as the other races are concerned, communities with
a history of violence in America has earned a place of respect in Tinseltown.
In regards to this, I am thinking about: the Watts and L.A. riots; Latino
gangs in the heartland of America; Mexican and Columbian drug cartels; and,
last but not least, the 9/11 attacks.

jp: This speaks to the fact that APAs are not given to outright expression of their feelings, big or small. Best I can ascertain, it's a "cultural thing," but, that aside, whatever the reason(s) may be, the fact is that APAs are a relatively NON-engaged bunch on just about every level except for capitalism. And that's a sad fact, because the *potential* political capital that APAs have via business is considerable.

Hollywood, why not make a positive movie about Asian American contributions to
this country and the racism that we and our ancestors face? For example, where
are the movies about the hard-working 19th century Chinese laborers who built
the American railroads only to be rounded up, killed, or driven to escape to
Mexico by the white community after the project was completed? Where are the
movies about the Chinese Exclusion Act that basically amounted to American
Eugenics in the latter part of the 1800s? Where is the movie about the
injustices that Wen Ho Lee faced?

jp: While I understand your frustrations, the realities of the studio system trump this kind of thinking. The *only* ways that Hollywood would ever consider a niche project such as the ones you 've mentioned is: 1) for APAs to prove that there is a market for this kind of fare, or 2) to exert political pressure upon the studios in order to get them to comply. With the former, APAs must prove on their own that they can connect, develop and sell-through to the APA audience, and respective naitonal audiences where applicable. In other words, they must exert economic pressure upon the industry *from outside of the system*, just as musicians do when they are unsigned but connect to their audiences. This is exactly what the early hip hop DJs did way back when some three decades ago. This is why APA (and any) filmmakers out side of the system *must* have a working knowledge of two crucial knowledge bases: marketing and distribution. The latter point is much more difficult because what it entails is creating an "infrastructure" (for lack of a better word) that exerts pressure upon the power brokers. Whether political (advocacy groups), public (cultural critics), entertainment (talk shows, news shows...), outspoken pundits, cultural icons... it all adds up to and creates an atmosphere where to not acquiesce to the demands of a powerful minority would result in bad pr. The optimum, of course, is the confluence of both - this the position that blacks presently enjoy, to the point where we can have Kanye West or Oprah revealing their distaste for the way the government mishandled Hurricane Katrina's aftermath without any fear of retribution. It also speaks to the way that, like the above point raised, they are unafraid to speak out.

I'm also still waiting for a mainstream movie about Vincent Chin. Don't know
who Vincent Chin is? (My point exactly!) Look him up on the internet. You
would also be surprised how many teenagers (Asian and otherwise) who, to this
day, know nothing about the Chinese American contributions to the American

jp: I've addressed this point above about developing APA projects, but do have a comment on the de-politicizing - popularly known as "dumbing down" - of APA youth and America in general. Recently, there was a news segment that criticized our lack of initiative in math and science in our schools, and how in the near future we will be at a disadvantage because we will be unable to compete on a global scale. On this reasoning, the critic suggested that our schoolls need to begin a big push in math and science.

jp: But what's getting us in to so much trouble these days is - in part - because we have a society that is largely, criticaly pasisve. They are simply un or ill-equipped to deal with issues - not because they don't know how to read, a mechanical function, but because they don't know how to critically think. And while I argue that critical thinking can be taught in the hard sciences, the fact is that it's not (for the most part), so it's a moot point. It's not necessarily the masses' fault - ask a Vietnamese couple who escaped if they risked life and limb and leaving their homeland to raise children in America so that they could become filmmakers and wee their look of astonishment. No - doctors, engineers, computer scientists... the hard sciences are where the money's at. The one exception is law, where critica thinking is indeed part and parcel of the game. However, the money in "lawyering" is in business transactions - corporate law. Hardly something that is going to prompt one to think about "vital social issues 'n stuff."

jp: What this means is that APAs are culpable to a large degree. I just came back from a big minority convention for entertainment, where they premiered a feature that was well-received. The producer came up afterward and gave an inspirational speech to the effect of, "Persevere, you WILL make your movies and they WILL be seen." I think that kind of talk, while well-intentioned, is completely misguided and out of touch with the realities of the market. APAs have a tough road - the toughest, in my opinion, insofar as film and television. My point is that APAs have to stop giving over their precious time and energies to chasing Hollywood and begin the process of figuring out how to connect to their audience - that's what Gene Cajayon and his team did with THE DEBUT. That's what Tyler Perry did BEFORE he shot even one foot of film with his self made chitlin' circuit. And that's what Robert Greenwald is doing - completely outside of the studio system.

jp: These - and others I know of - are the poster children for the independent movement. But whne the so-caled leading lights of the indie movement, "Filmmaker," "Moviemaker" and "The Independent" even mention them it is never within the context of delivering concrete knowledge about how to connect to one's audience outside of Hollywood. They dance aorund the issue, as if it was just a trivial whim on the way to success. And that is a critical, fundamental mistake.

In my opinion, Hollywood is just concerned about preserving the white social
power monopoly in America, pacifying certain minority communities deemed as
violence-prone, and subjugating others not seen as a physical (but perhaps
economic and intellectual) threat by perpetuating racist crap portrayed by
movies like Crash, The Joy Luck Club, The Fast and the Furious, amongst a
myriad of others. This kind of content just promotes prejudice, violence, and
harassment towards Asian Americans in the workplace, in academia, and society
in general.

jp: Perhaps, and I don't doubt that this is so. However, the over-riding factors that determine what product is made - and is not - is the market. Moreover, Hollywood's *perception* - right or wrong - of the market. So Margaret Cho's show fails, and provides the networks with a rational for not producing more APA product. And yet, plenty of white straight male Jewish fare gets made, season after season, and fails miserably. This isn't conjecture. The point is that their perceptions are so skewed as to see the market according to their world views, and this influences everything they do, needless to say. What it means is that their interests are not tied to placating APA interests, because they are controlled by large mega-corporations; they answer to boards, Wall Street and shareholder interests, who all share this same world view.

If this manipulation of the greater American subconsciousness continues, I
think that it wouldn't be surprising to continue seeing the existence of glass
ceilings in corporate America and university quotas hindering the progress of
well-qualified Asian Americans for a long time to come. Personally, I wouldn't
be surprised to see the re-emergence of Asian male bachelor societies
springing up in major American cities (particularly in Southern California).

jp: I agree. In my opinion, the ONLY remedy is for APAs to get on the entrepreneurial bus and connect to the audience. Once they do that, they must continue to develop their audience, and that's only done by finding them and discovering whta it is that they want. If a critical mass of APAs shows up then the market will speak much more forcefully than any lobbying efforts to Les Moonves ever have. To date, and somewhat ironically, only Asian nationals have connected in any kind of significant way to the market. Chan Wook Park's OLDBOY won the special jury prize at Cannes, and yet, time after time, when I speak to APAs about this terrific film, they have little to no knowledge of it. And yet, TSOTSI enjoys a much larger consciousness among black Americans, perhaps displaying the way that blacks are much more connected to being black in ways APAs have yet to discover about being Asian.

In this sense, I believe that Hollywood is the backbone of the modern American
Eugenics movement. Needless to say, I wasn't surprised to see Crash win the
Best Picture award at this year's Oscars.

jp: Now to CRASH. While I think the moniker of it being "the backbone of the modern American Eugenics movement," [sic] is a bit extreme, I think that CRASH points to exactly the way that Hollywood views race. Simply. And what if bad cops go home and show tenderness to their kin? Didn't Hitler pet his dog?

jp: CRASH would have us believe that life is complexity itself, that this "duality" is something deep, that it as a film itself is deep, for having shown you that yes, Hitler indeed petted his dog. And with a population that is uncritically aware of how it is being manipulated - which speaks to the earlier point about Americans and our dumbing down - filmmaker Paul Haggis is free to pose Hitler petting his dog as if that were ... deep. Further, in a sign of hack writing, he contrives to "deepen" his character by having him save the victim of his assault. So it's just a coincidence that he "just happens" to be walking by where Thandie newton's character has crashed (yes, we get the tie in here Paul)? This movie is pathetic, manipulative and deceiving in the worst kind of way; by hiding behind the mask of depth, it does nothing to address the institutional social constructions of society that keep the status quo in power. In fact, with Loretta Devine's character, and in as audacious a move ever, it actually flips that construct on its head! Thus the power structure is pandered to and shakes its head in approval. "Ah yes," they say in self-congratgulatory recognition. "Isn't that so..."

jp: The Academy calls that bold, provocative moviemaking - I call it a lie and charlatanism of the worst, placating kind masquerading as discovery and reality.