You may have missed it, but if you search for it, you will find it in abundance. It wasn’t played up a lot in mainstream media, but there was a little controversy about the hit movie 21.
Apparently, a lot of Asian-Americans were in an uproar about how the race of the characters had been changed from Asian-American to White. Some were even calling for boycotts. The argument went something like, “It’s hard enough for Asian-Americans actors to get good roles in Hollywood, but now that they would actually get the opportunity to play a lead role, the role suddenly has become ‘white-washed.'” Sadly, I don’t think it makes an economic difference whether or not Asian-Americans boycott a movie; we aren’t a significant enough demographic for Hollywood execs to consider. The film was a commercial success.
One person commenting on a blog or article (I forget which) thought people were overreacting and pointed out that the original novel I Am Legend featured a white character who was then ‘black-washed’ for the movie in the form of Will Smith. I think that’s just rubbing salt in the wounds even more, frankly. There is still a lot of racism against African-Americans in Hollywood, but there has also been a lot of progress, and the fact that Will Smith can carry off an “everyman” role like Robert Neville is evidence of that progress.
This is what it ultimately boils down to—Hollywood execs will cast whomever they feel will bring the biggest box office draw. If Asian-American actors brought in the dough (Harold & Kumar was profitable, which is why it gets a sequel, but it is not a Titanic-like blockbuster), they would be cast in lead roles more often.
Hollywood, through its amoral greed, is just providing a lens into the racism that America as a whole demonstrates through its ticket purchases. White Americans are just beginning to accept the notion of identifying with an African-American as “the everyman” (think Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks) in the form of Will Smith. Asian-Americans are still finding themselves identifying with White (and sometimes Black) protagonists, but White Americans never find themselves in the position of having to identify with only Asian-American protagonists.
Even though all of my examples so far have had to do with male actors, I think the trend applies equally as well to female actors. Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh have become household names, but how many movies or TV shows feature them as the leading lady. Lucy Liu has been able to be a main character side by side with Ally McBeal and the other two of Charlie’s Angels, but has she been the lead in anything by herself? Has Sandra Oh (without Ellen Pompeo or Diane Lane)? And, no, Double Happiness was not a box office hit.
It’s easy to put all the blame on Hollywood for being “racist,” but like corporate America in general, Hollywood studios are amoral, not immoral. If casting Asian-Americans in lead roles will make them profitable, they’ll do it. Hollywood is more a barometer of America’s racism. Most Americans still find it difficult to identify with an Asian-American protagonist—that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure how to change that, but clearly boycotting “white-washed” movies isn’t the way to do it.