My wife and I are big time movie watchers. Ninety percent of our dates are the two of us going to see a movie together. Maybe you’re thinking we should be more creative and mix it up sometimes. Maybe we should try bowling. Maybe you should mind your bizness. Earlier this week we saw Crazy Rich Asians. I’m not big on the RomCom genre, so usually if we see one it’s because my wife picked the movie. This particular romantic comedy was my suggestion because its Rotten Tomatoes score was high and it looked like it was another strong attempt at telling an authentic cultural story that wasn’t anglo driven. I went into the movie having had a few conversations with people from the AAPI community about their culture, but far from knowledgeable about the culture represented in the movie. I was intrigued from a cultural perspective in light of Hollywood’s recent success at telling authentic culturally relevant stories like Black Panther and Get Out. It seems that the movie industry is attempting to make space for the stories of non-European people groups, and we the consumers are responding somewhere between “YES” and “FINALLY”.
I talked to a couple friends of mine after seeing CRA who were both AAPI individuals. Both of them expressed the joy they felt in watching people who looked like them being portrayed on the big screen in ways that preserved the dignity of their culture and heritage. It’s not often that you see a main stream romcom where non-whites aren’t supporting actors adding to the story being told about the white couple trying to navigate their tumultuous journey toward falling in love with each other. This movie is FABA (For Asians By Asians), and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful. It doesn’t seem like the makers of this film felt any obligation to explain the subtle languages, cultural references, dishes or games shown throughout the story that are unique to AAPI culture. It is a celebration of their culture and customs and movie goers of all cultures and ethnicities are invited to witness it play out on the big screen. Movies like this are far more than just entertainment. They are messages to us all about making room for people and cultures different from our own to lead, inspire and teach us.
My wife and I have never made having up-to-date family photos in our home a big deal, and as a result we’ve never been the family with giant pictures of us hanging on the walls. We have some family photos from many years ago, but it doesn’t feel right to hang pictures of the family without our youngest daughter in them. The story we would be trying to tell our house guests about our family would be incomplete if one or more members of our household were absent from all or most of the family photos. Throughout history the stories we tell, the songs we sing and the images we display have been our greatest teachers of what and sometimes who we value. Take for example the image that pops up when you type “Jesus” into a google search bar.
These are not the features of a Jewish man. The story being told about Jesus in the above image and in most of the images or depictions of Jesus you will see is that he was/is European. This was certainly my experience. I remember feeling like there had been a mistake the first time I saw a portrait of Jesus depicted as a man of color. Full disclosure, the image I saw of Jesus was him characterized as a black man with locs. As a teenager having grown up watching Jesus in movies and plays portrayed by white men with long hair, I kind of thought that “black Jesus” was borderline blasphemous. There was something ugly and wrong about this Jesus, and that’s the power imagery has over the human psyche. Having an image reinforced consistently over time communicates values, beliefs, ideas and standards. How Jesus should be represented in art is far too deep to cover in depth here. I only mention it to highlight how images can impact our beliefs about ourselves and others.
For many years we’ve been subject to story telling that only gives dignity to European culture. When we, the audience of Black Panther, heard the tribal drums in Wakanda we were hearing the sound of dignity being shown to a culture that up until that point had served as mostly background noise for other cultures stories to cut through. It was a moment for black people to stick their chests out and feel a sense of pride in their blackness. From the conversations I’ve had with my Asian friends, they had a similar experience watching Crazy Rich Asians.
Have you ever listened to a group of your friends tell a funny story about something that happened to them when they weren’t with you? No matter how great or funny the story is, it will never mean the same to you because you weren’t there. You weren’t in on the joke. That’s what it has felt like for minorities going to the movies all these years. Many of us didn’t realize it until we saw ourselves depicted as authentic heroes and central figures for the first time in film.
Movies/books like CRA are important because they reinforce the best values and ideas of the human spirit shared through different images. Rather than a love story being told again through the lens of whiteness, this story of love, struggle, perseverance and open mindedness is brought to us from the perspective of AAPI culture. That’s a beautiful thing and every one of us would be serving ourselves and humanity by making space for stories like this one to help shape how we view the world. There are beautiful stories that every culture can tell us about love, acceptance, courage, faith and a whole host of other values that we would be cheating ourselves to not look for. When we allow people who don’t come from our tribe to teach us about theirs, we enrich our own lives and theirs too. We become part of their story and they become part of ours. The world becomes a little less divided and we take one step closer to genuine appreciation for our differences. Yes, I do believe going to see a movie can put us on a path to do all that, but to be fair, maybe mixed race bowling could do the same thing. I just really like movies.
What impact has representation in art, music or film had on you?