Is there a more acceptable type of an Asian leading man? And is that type half-white?
The Sun Is Also A Star, whose movie trailer was just released, is a blockbuster YA love story about two teenagers—a Jamaican American girl named Natasha Kingsley and a Korean American boy named Daniel Bae—who happen to meet just as her immigration status is in jeopardy. She’s a science and numbers girl, while he’s a poet boy. But despite their differences, they are drawn to each other and they have to race against time to make their budding relationship work.
Daniel Bae is being played by Charles Melton, who’s half-white and half-Korean (not to mention the fact that Natasha Kingsley is being played by Yara Shahidi, who’s half-Persian and half-black). Given how genderized racism works on Asian men and black women, don’t tell me this is yet another innocent coincidence.
When Henry Golding was cast as Nick Young (who, contrary to some whispers, is indeed a full-Asian character in the book) in Crazy Rich Asians, there were many complaints from Asians, especially Asian men, who felt that this was once again blatant colorism: a paper-bag test for Asians because the sight of a fully chinky face would be too much for the audience, particularly for the female audience. However, most of these complaints were tamped down for various reasons, such as the need for baby steps towards full Asian representation or for mixed-race Asian actors to get acting opportunities as well.
But at what point do “baby steps” actually just reveal the established norm that’s never to move further? And how can one claim to be an advocate for mixed-race Asian actors when these same people cried tears of joy over a full Asian actress in Lana Condor taking a mixed-race Asian’s role in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before?
I wish Nicola Yoon all the best. She seems like a lovely woman in a lovely marriage who’s trying to tell lovely love stories. Granted, the novel’s triumphant romanticism meant it wasn’t exactly my type of book (I prefer bitter, bleak, and cynical), but I could still appreciate what she was trying to do by telling a story of young love between two oft-ignored demographics: black girls and Asian boys. The book seemed rooted in her own relationship as a black American woman married to an Asian (specifically, Korean) American man, and given the barriers they likely faced, that gave the story a real-life sweetness.
Unfortunately, the movie adaptation has soured all that. Firstly, it’s not only the Korean American male lead who’s been given the colorism treatment. The black female lead who’s supposed to of Jamaican heritage is being played by Yara Shahidi, who is half-Persian and half-black. This would seem like nit-picking if this all didn’t fit in to the all-too-common practice of casting lighter-skinned, often white-mixed, women to play dark-skinned characters. We’re seeing this with the Aladdin movie too, with Naomi Scott (who’s half-English and half-Indian) playing Princess Jasmine. Dark-skinned women are beautiful, but the American establishment keeps denying that.
But focusing on the (half)whitewashing of the Asian male lead, Daniel Bae, this casting is all the more ludicrous given how crucial Daniel’s Asianness is to his character. He’s not a character who “happens to be Asian.” A significant part of his story arc is about him trying to deal with being a 2nd-generation Korean American son and being raised by an immigrant Korean father. Daniel wants to be a poet, but his storekeeper father hates to hear such sappy romantic nonsense. I’m not saying that mixed-race Asian children can’t also deal with such problems, but Daniel’s family experience is so deeply rooted in an Asian immigrant experience that’s alienated from white American norms. If there were a white American parent present, the family dynamic is probably going to be at least somewhat different than that of a Korean immigrant family. Charles Melton clearly looks of mixed race, so are they going to write in a white tiger mom? (I now hate myself for using this godawful term).
Even more laughable is the fact that they cast a full Asian actor, Jake Choi, to play his older brother, Charlie. Jake Choi isn’t a star, but neither is Charles Melton. If Choi was available and on their radar, why wasn’t he cast as the lead? Daniel is an artsy guy with a ponytail. Both actors are too old for the part, but I can buy Jake Choi as that type a hell of a lot more than I can with Charles Melton, who looks like a water polo jock who yells “GAY!” at artsy guys with long hair.
Did I also mention that Charlie is a self-hating Asian guy who looks down on black people?
“You want to know why I don’t like you? Because you’re just like them.” He points his chin in the direction of our dad. “You and your Korean food and your Korean friends and studying Korean in school. It’s pathetic. Don’t you get it, Little Brother? You’re just like everybody else.” — Charlie Bae
I may go see this movie just to see how they deal with a climactic and emotionally fraught scene between the two brothers in which Daniel finally confronts Charlie on his racism and racial self-hatred. Charlie, who hates being Asian and only dates white girls, keeps shitting on Daniel for being too Korean and having a black girlfriend. Daniel finally stands up for himself and punches Charlie in the face, thereby teaching him a lesson about how to be a proud and open-minded Asian American guy.
So on-screen, what we’ll be seeing is a white-looking half-Asian guy in Charles Melton teaching a life lesson about what it means to be Asian to a guy who’s actually full Asian. If there’s a sequel, maybe Zendaya can teach Jennifer Hudson what it means to be a true black woman. Hollywood always has such a tough time finding full Asian guys when they need romantic leads. But if there’s a need for a piece-of-shit villain? They find them like pigs in a truffle field. Get the popcorn ready, I cannot wait.
I’m not saying that if Jake Choi (or other full Asian actor) had been cast as Daniel Bae, then the world’s racial problems would be solved, or even incrementally solved. Nor is Charles Melton’s casting some cataclysmic world event. The cause of media representation can get overblown and self-important, often losing sight of the fact that media rep should only be a means, not an end. But don’t give us limp half-measures that are laden with old racism and expect us to celebrate. And we do have a right to get pissed off, especially as Asian men who’ve constantly been told we’re disgusting and now, in a kinder and more progressive age, are now being told that we’re pretty hot so long as we’re upgraded by some amount of whiteness. It’s an anger that’s rightfully acknowledged when voiced by dark-skinned women, so Asians have every right to speak up and be heard.
This is not just about some YA novel or some YA movie. This is about having the right to voice complaints about legitimate claims of racism, whether it manifests themselves in real life or on the screen. And Asian Americans ourselves need to stop suppressing it for fear of rocking the boat, a misguided worship of incrementalism, or because we ourselves are too invested in an “improved and whitened” future for Asian America.
And don’t get lured in by Hollywood corporate wokeness. It’s not the solution and never has been.