Movies/TV Shows with Asian American Leads

Rationale for List

I grew up in the 80s, when Asian American characters in Hollywood movies and TV shows were few and far between and often awful caricatures with fake accents. Unfortunately, these caricatures and lack of good roles for Asian American actors persist (Two Broke Girls, for example), when it's not just plain old whitewashing (Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, for example).

So I thought I'd make up a little list of movies and TV shows for those who are looking for more than just the usual American film/TV portrayal of Asian Americans.

Criteria for List

Like the Bechdel Test, this list's criteria isn't intended to be comprehensive or to even say "This movie is good" or "This TV show isn't problematic in any way." But the criteria does set the movie or TV show as different from the usual Hollywood fare:

  • There must be as least one Asian American character either who is in a lead role or who is fully fleshed out and complex.
  • There must be at least one Asian American character who isn't faking an Asian accent.
  • If there is a lead female Asian American character, she doesn't just end up with the lead male white character. Nothing against that kind of romantic pairing on principle—it is just done and overdone. (The Mindy Project and The Joy Luck Club are exceptions, because the female leads are so fully developed and central to the narratives.)
  • If it's a movie, I have to have seen it. If it's a TV show, I have to have watched at least two episodes of it.
  • It must be somewhat watchable. I won't say these are all excellent movies/TV shows, but I at least don't think they're horrible.

The Actual List

I'm listing in reverse chronological order by year (not going to distinguish within a year—too much work for too little reward—to get exact months of release) and then alphabetical.

2017

2016

2015

2014

2012

2010

2008

  • 21 (honorable mention)

2007

2005

2004

2002

1993

1989

1959

1947

Honorable Mentions?

Honorable mentions are for movies that have a fleshed-out non-fake-accented Asian American character who is a very side character or only supporting role. (My Favorite Brunette sneaks in there even though the one Asian American character isn't fleshed out. For a 1940s American movie to even have an Asian American character who doesn't have to fake an accent is relatively progressive for the time.)

The list is not complete by any means...

I'm open to suggestions, and I'll append to this list as I think of / see more movies and TV shows. Keep in mind I won't be adding to this list stuff that I haven't seen before. I haven't seen Marvel's Agents of SHIELD or the new Teen Wolf series, for example.

Faking Accents

I have absolutely nothing against Asian American actors who fake accents to get work. Getting jobs in acting is hard for anyone, and it's extra difficult for Asian American actors to get any acting jobs, even ones that are horrible parts. You do you. Get your work. Stay active. Build your résumé. That said, I still want to bring extra attention to the roles that involve not faking accents or reinforcing stereotypes. It doesn't mean those actors are better than actors who do other roles (in many cases, there is a lot of overlap—one Asian American actor having to do one role with a fake accent may sometimes score a role without a fake accent).

Asian American?

Yes, I know there are Asian movie stars in Asia, and some of them have even had some success in the U.S. (especially for action/martial arts). Why can't Asian Americans also have the same (or better) success in their own home country? And, yes, I know I did a big old lump of the diasporas into the umbrella of "Asian American" when some of these actors are Asian Canadian or Asian Australian (or Asian British?). If I narrowed it down to only U.S. citizens, the list would, unfortunately, be even shorter than it is.

Why does everything have to be about race?

Not everything is about race, but race is a real issue in Hollywood. It isn't by accident that almost all major movies and TV shows are about white (or white-appearing) characters. Don't tell me I don't need to go into surgery for my damaged right arm just because my left arm is fine. For more details on why ignoring race in America is messed up and doesn't actually fix problems, check out Why is it so controversial when someone says "All Lives Matter" instead of "Black Lives Matter"?

If, after reading that, you're still going to troll, I'm just going to delete you. There is plenty of that garbage out there in the Twittersphere and Tumblrsphere. I don't need to host so-called (i.e., fake) "color-blindness" on my blog. Go spout it somewhere else.

8 thoughts on “Movies/TV Shows with Asian American Leads”

  1. There’s also:
    – The Motel (2005)
    – The Debut (2001)
    – Gran Torino (2008) honorable mention
    – The Goddess of (1967)
    – Cold Fever (1995)
    – Japanese Story (2003)
    and a lot more indie films

    jesus i should start a database for asian american movies/asian australian/ and other asian.

  2. ~Project Almanac
    ~Into the Badlands
    ~Movies by Sessue Hayakawa, known as the first sex symbol in hollywood (only the ones in the 1910s and 1920s) the ones after that get racist
    You should almost list famous Asian American actors such as Steven Yeun, Daniel Dae Kim, James Shigeta, Allen Evanlabinsta, John Cho, Daniel Henney, Sessue Hayakawa, Daniel Wu, and several more.

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