A romantic comedy in which a bootstraps middle-class woman finds herself in love with a billionaire family. Entertaining, humorous, well produced, and creative, with one thing in particular that stands out – almost the entire starring cast are of Asian, primarily East Asian, descent.
The entertainment media has been abuzz as the Warner Brothers-distributed film that hit theatres the past few days is said to be the first of its kind in decades. In a Hollywood in which it has been widely covered on how actors of every kind of diverse background have faced a much tougher path to the red carpet due to studio worries over whether the market will accept it, “Crazy Rich Asians” is another in a line of films smashing down those barriers.
We saw with the groundbreaking film “Black Panther” back in February of this year how the all-African-American and African cast showed Hollywood that there was audience interest for a film where actors of diverse backgrounds commanded the starring roles, as the film grossed over $1.3 billion.
The stakes are also high for “Crazy Rich Asians.” Directed by Jon Chu and starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu, and more, while it is doubtful it will hit Marvel-like box office numbers, nonetheless a strong showing will be essential for whether entertainment studios will pursue more films like it in the future as well as open up more movie roles to those of Asian and other diverse backgrounds.
The entertainment industry is fundamentally still a business and with particularly high up-front capital investment costs in producing movies to completion before seeing revenue, thereby leading to the risk-averse nature of studios towards anything outside of proven marketability.
Hollywood is but one sector but is essential for its cultural influence. Scenes from popular movies are replayed for decades to come and standout characters become immortalized in our societal lore. The ways narratives and casts are designed shape our collective imagination and have tangible impacts on the lives of all.
Giving equal opportunity and representation to the incredible array of people of every background and characteristic in this country is vital because it shows that we are all part of the American story and have an equal chance in it. Furthermore, doing it rightly – in a way that avoids derogatory stereotyping – is another key step where progress too is slowly being made.
The actual plot of “Crazy Rich Asians” both speaks to those of an Asian or Asian-American background in particular but also is understandable and enjoyable for broader audiences. As a romantic comedy it combines humor and intense relationship drama in a fascinating way, as it really is a modernized “Cinderella” story with its own unique twists and turns.
It seems 2018 is a year in which many cultural ceilings in the entertainment industry are coming down, This is great news for all, as this will allow an environment in which all people, whether producers or actors, can compete and work together on level ground and more focus on the best talent and product rather than other factors. Our broader culture gains from this as it is removing what has been shown to be an unnatural market barrier, at least in recent years, as we benefit from more stories and talent on screen.
The point of much of this experimentation is showing that films with diverse casts both can speak to a particular audience as well as speak to the general public too. As with many things in our country, if there is a buying market there will be sellers to it. It clearly took some executives at these entertainment companies to decide to take on some risk and explore these new paths, but as the box office numbers have shown it has been successful both immediately monetarily and in terms of a broader cultural shift.
I look forward to a future in which we see a wider array of films that feature our country’s entire lineup of people and communities – and undoubtedly films such as “Black Panther” and now “Crazy Rich Asians” are paving the way for that.
The public square has been alight in recent days as controversy has brewed over The New York Times’ hiring of Harvard Law-educated Sarah Jeong and her history of questionable Tweets.
Based on Twitter’s publicly available information, since joining the platform in June 2009 she has sent out over 103,000 Tweets. It seems many dozens of those have disturbing, cruel, and racist overtones towards various groups. The New York Times has issued a quasi-apology but apparently will retain Jeong, who has alleged much of it was satirical and also apologized.
This saga is extraordinarily complex because of both the immense amount of information and numerous norms, issues, and deeper societal questions involved.
On one hand, it is a reminder again about the strange power of certain social media platforms in now affecting our media discourse as well as business and public policy in general to some degree.
A platform like Twitter, in contrast to Facebook, is inherently designed to be far more of a public square in contrast to Facebook’s more “node-like” system. Many users have, over the years, accumulated extensive histories and thousands upon thousands of Tweets on the platform that are extremely easily searchable and retrievable.
Because of the nature of viral “movements” on the platform it is easy to create a ruckus that will cause an institution to feel they have to react even when it is but a tiny but vocal smattering of folks. We see this on both the left and right, as institutions feel compelled to react based on an over-estimation of the business threat of said movement but want to avoid the risk in testing how impactful any revenue impact may actually be.
On the other hand, this incident has also served a clear evidence again of a double-standard that exists in much of our public discourse. It shows how different norms apply to those on the various ends of the policy and ideological spectrum or, as lately our communications structure has been moving into, tribes.
When someone on the left does an egregious act, often there will be much more leeway, second chances, and other “safety nets” given. In contrast, if someone in the center or right does so, often the consequences, accelerated by the social media mob, will be more severe and unforgiving.
We saw this just a few months ago in The Atlantic’s firing of columnist Kevin Williamson, among numerous incidents before and since. While it is the legal right of such companies to act in such ways, as a cultural norm it moves in a dangerous direction in closing the “Overton window.”
The dangers are not only in the ideas being discussed in the public square being restricted but also in the societal reactions that come from it. Just as how people say “Twitter is not real life,” so ‘media is also not completely real life.’ Just as the daily discussions and representations on cable news are not a completely whole and accurate reflection of daily American life and world affairs, same with much of our media.
Shutting down voices is but a speed bump to a vehicle of ideas. If the idea is truly powerful enough, in a generally free society it will continue to spread and grow regardless with eventual impact on society at-large, even if outside of the media.
For example, then-candidate Donald Trump’s historic rise in the 2015 GOP primaries and victory in the 2016 election despite heavily negative coverage demonstrated how reactions can happen – whether with election results, readership and subscription metrics, or other business and social impacts.
In those cases it means media platforms are becoming disconnected from perhaps large segments of the general population, which is extremely worrying because of the essential role a free and open discourse plays in providing news, information, and commentary to our citizenry.
The New York Times has stuck by its hiring of Sarah Jeong as it stuck by its hiring of conservative, albeit “Never Trump,” columnist Bret Stephens last year despite immense outrage from the left. Yet the questions of how the norms of our public square are to be shaped in the Internet-age persist, and remain extremely uncertain and difficult to resolve.
This most recent controversy will soon likely be forgotten and replaced by a new one, but the lessons it reminds us again of – the nature of the Internet and social media, as well ensuring our public square is at the right balance of being free and open – are worth dwelling on.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.