I have been a Netflix subscriber for more than five years, and I am genuinely impressed by its ability to recommend movies based on my previous viewing habits. However, it’s recommendations rarely intersect with my work.
But recently, Netflix recommended a documentary on the changing roles of Asian-Americans in cinema. It was a film by none other than Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s Public Defender who bears the distinction of being one of the few public defenders in the nation who is elected to his position by popular vote. His film is called The Slanted Screen and was released in 2006.
The Slanted Screen begins with an interesting film history of Asian actors. Did you know that the silent film era was one of the golden ages for Asian actors in Hollywood? In his day, Sessue Hayakawa was a leading man mentioned in the same breath as Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin. The film goes on to describe the next era for Asian American actors in war movies as well as the martial arts genre. The most interesting part of the documentary, for me, was learning about the responses to such roles. I think I now understand why contemporary Asian-American actors have such mixed feelings about Bruce Lee.
The second half is devoted in large part to discuss the desexualization of Asian-Men in mainstream American film. Essentially, systemic desexualization exists side-by-side with a pervasive refusal on the part of viewers to accept Asian-Americans as leading romantic roles. Adachi explores whether society’s racism is providing a market for media stereotypes, or whether the media stereotypes are the cause of society’s racism.
The documentary is directed in a way that feels like Adachi is presenting evidence backed with testimony to effect a certain point of view. This seems to be congruent with what one would expect from an attorney. And like one might expect, Adachi presents his cases well. The “evidence” Adachi uses are clips from popular movies and his “expert testimony” comes from Asian American actors and writers. The scenes he uses are well chosen to display certain stereotypes, both positive and negative. Whether or not I shared his interpretations, his examples are all thought-provoking.
Case in point: Adachi cites the character of Mike Yanagita, of the Cohen brothers’ Fargo, as an example of the stereotypically desexualized Asian-American male.
Mike and Marge enjoy Diet Coke’s at the Radisson
When I first saw Fargo, I didn’t think that the Cohen’s poke fun at Mike Yanagita because he is Asian; I thought it was because he’s Minnesotan. And Marge Gunderson is not unavailable to Mike because he’s Asian; she’s unavailable because she’s happily married and pregnant. But just because one stereotype is more prominent doesn’t mean the other no longer exists; Choosing to see Mike Yanagita as a Mid-Westerner doesn’t make him less Asian. Would I view that scene differently if the man Marge meets at the Radisson was of a different race?
Adachi provides more questions to get your film club or class discussion going.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Slanted Screen. It’s about an hour long and it’s streaming on Netflix.