‘21’ Discriminatory Casting Unjustified

Several years ago, when I first heard that the best-selling book Bringing Down the House would be made into a Hollywood movie, I was beyond excited. However, now that ‘21’ is out, no matter how much I try to rationalize the casting decisions behind this film, I remain outraged as an American. I will attempt to explain why Hollywood’s discriminatory casting process behind this film is offensive, why over 600 members on a Facebook group have called for its boycott, and why several prominent newspapers and blogs have criticized this movie, with one writer even calling it “moving Asian Americans to the back of the bus.”

Some background information must be introduced. First, the real-life team, which this non-fiction book and inspired film were based on, consisted of mostly Asian American men, who have recently revealed themselves as Jeffrey Ma ’94 (the character Ben Campbell), Michael Aponte ’95 (Steve Fisher), and John Chang ’85 (Mickey Rosa). In a March 25 Boston Globe interview, the real-life Jill Taylor (Jane Willis, then a Harvard Law School student and ringleader of the blackjack team) confirmed the ethnic makeup of the team: “I think it dawned on him that we could play blackjack and also give the team, which was mostly Asian and male, a little diversity.” It should be reiterated that ‘21’ is not about any other blackjack team; new versions of the book ‘Bringing Down the House’ even have the movie poster as its book cover.

Second, according to the non-fiction book, the team’s Asian ethnicities were central to the plot and their ability to gamble huge amounts of money without notice. Here is an excerpt from the book: “The MIT team thrived by choosing [Big Players] who fit the casino mold of the young, foolish, and wealthy. Primarily nonwhite, either Asian or Middle Eastern, these were the kids the casinos were accustomed to seeing bet a thousand bucks a hand. Like many on the team, Kevin Lewis was part Asian, and could pass as the child of a rich Chinese or Japanese executive … ‘… White 20-year-olds with $2 million bankrolls stand out,’ explains Andrew Tay, one of Lewis’ teammates.”

Third, before seeing any auditions, the movie studio had initially intended to write out all of these Asian American males in the cast. In a 2005 Tech interview, here is what the book author Ben Mezrich had to say: “Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process — though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film’s actors would be White, with perhaps an Asian female.”

For those who have seen the film, the end result was a production that whitewashed most of the real life characters, with Aaron Yoo playing a kleptomaniac as a token Asian secondary character. Think of other examples of films inspired from true stories. Would you feel okay about ‘Coach Carter’ or ‘Pursuit of Happiness’, starring Al Pacino? How about ‘Passion of the Christ’ starring an East Asian, or a blond, blue-eyed actor? I think when entertainment is supposed to be based on real life, that there is an obligation to stay true to the situation’s demographics and the real life protagonists. For example, a movie about the NBA with no Black actors, or a hospital show with no Asian American male doctors in it, would seem unrealistic. There is also precedent to this argument. For example, decades ago Broadway initially used White actresses to play the Asian female protagonist in ‘Miss Saigon,’ until they were eventually forced by the Actor’s Equity Union to use Asian actresses.

The two strongest defenses I have read for this offensive casting process are that Hollywood is a business (and that Americans won’t accept Asian faces), and also to point to films like ‘I Am Legend’ (a film starring Will Smith which was based on a book about a fictional White protagonist). In my opinion, both arguments are unconvincing.

People who pay to see this film are going to see the supposedly non-fiction cool story, Kevin Spacey, and Laurence Fishburne. Jim Sturgess is not putting butts in the seats any more than Aaron Yoo is (who would have made a great lead). Additionally, the implications of the ‘it makes money’ excuse are troubling to me; similar-sounding defenses have been used in the past to justify discrimination of minorities for jobs, and to exclude women from voting or the workforce. In fact, people familiar with Hollywood know that casting is not just chosen on best talent, and is oftentimes determined by marketing departments who dictate which races or ethnicities the characters will be, in order to make the most money. Incidentally, a 2006 study of Hollywood’s discriminatory casting process, by UCLA law professor Russell Robinson, indicated that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, minority actors may have legal rights to sue Hollywood for excluding minorities from roles based on race.

‘I Am Legend’ did not offend most White Americans, whereas ‘21’ offended Asian Americans, because there is a dearth of non-stereotypical, three-dimensional, sympathetic, or positive Asian American male images in American media. NPR and PBS recently featured the documentary ‘The Slanted Screen,’ which chronicles the marginalization of Asian American men in Hollywood, from evil Fu Manchu caricatures, to yellowface and buck-toothed Asians in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ to how Bruce Lee wasn’t even picked for his own TV show that he wrote (‘Kung Fu’), instead having it go to David Carradine, who to this day still pretends he is Asian in television commercials. Whitewashing of Asian characters continues to this day, such as in upcoming live-action films like ‘Akira,’ ‘Dragonball,’ and ‘Speed Racer.’ ‘Charlie Chan,’ an old popular TV series about an Asian American detective done in yellowface, is currently being remade into a Hollywood movie starring no Asian men. Additionally, there are questionable motivations behind the recent dozens of remakes of quality Asian films, including ‘The Departed,’ and ‘My Sassy Girl,’ in which almost nothing is changed from the original stories except for race.

In multiple East Asian countries, the majority of films in theaters are Hollywood films starring White actors, and viewers have no problem paying and reading sub-titles, so why can’t Americans accept non-White faces in their theaters? Given the success of various East Asian foreign language films, ‘Harold and Kumar,’ ‘Lost,’ and ‘Heroes,’ I personally think America is willing to see Asian American male faces, and it is a shame that these studio executives give Americans such little credit.

This movie was the perfect chance for Hollywood to overcome its history of discrimination towards Asian American males, and to showcase talented Asian American actors, and they blew it. If there were more three-dimensional images out there for Asian American actors, I do not believe Asian Americans would be so frustrated over ‘21’. Exclusion or lack of presence can be just as offensive as overt negative stereotypes, and it marginalizes and alienates Asian Americans from the American melting pot. Studios obviously are not scared of offending Asian Americans, possibly because we are only 5 percent of the population. Major change probably will not happen until fair-minded non-Asian Americans get offended too.

Alvin Lin is a member of the Class of 2004.