This past week was, of course, the AAJA Convention in Boston, which brought out the nostalgia in me — especially on Facebook, where so many people I’ve met from past conventions posted about the parties, the workshops, the speakers and of course, having fun with old friends. One issue arose, however, that didn’t come out of the convention, but did get discussed — the new movie, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.” The treatment of the Asian guy in the movie is not getting any love from Japanese Americans.
A local board member and KTLA anchor, Frank Buckley, actually brought up the issue and had my co-president bring it up at the convention. He was particularly upset that the movie was released as L.A.’s Nisei Week Japanese Festival began. He says he was trying to keep his blood pressure down as he blogged about it:
Jeremy Piven plays a used car salesman who is trying to save a failing automobile dealership. In the preview trailer, he gives his sales team a pep talk that includes the following monologue:
“Don’t get me started on Pearl Harbor–the Japs, flying in low and fast–We are the Americans and they are the enemy!” An Asian character (who isn’t Japanese), “Teddy Dang,” played by Ken Jeong, becomes noticeably uncomfortable as the mob becomes heated. The sales team yells: “Never again!” followed by one character who screams: “Let’s get him!” The mob then sets upon Dang, beating him until Piven’s character tells them to stop. That’s when Piven’s character says: “We have all just participated in a hate crime. Let’s get our stories straight (for when we get arrested). Dan came at us with a samurai sword, fire extinguisher and Chinese throwing stars.”
This is where you’re supposed to laugh if you think using a racial slur like “Jap” during the course of a hate crime is funny and if you think blaming every Asian male for Pearl Harbor and then beating him for it is hilarious. The truth is it’s as unfunny as it would be to call an African American the “n” word for comedic effect or using an anti-Semitic slur against a Jewish person for giggles.
I can understand how Frank is angry about that scene in the trailer. After all, it kind of happened in real life — Vincent Chin anyone? Detroit? Cars? But it can be argued that Will Ferrell (listed as a producer) is not exactly a paragon of cultural sensitivity. And that humor is humor. And that they make fun of every group in the movie, which is essentially an excuse they gave to Frank, further down in the blog post.
But still. The associations between Vincent Chin and that character, coupled with the release’s timing is unfortunate at best. Its hard to believe that there was no Asian Americans working anywhere near this film that couldn’t have told them, this week may not be a good week for the movie’s release, and maybe the use of the word “Japs” maybe going too far, especially since the connotation is clear.
Frank wasn’t the only one who wrote about the movie. I met Gil Asakawa at my AAJA-LA co-president Jinah Kim’s wedding last spring. He writes:
Why is it that Hollywood — about as mainstream America as you can get — continues in the 21st century to rely so easily and quickly on these Asian stereotypes, even though similar treatment of other ethnic groups would be considered unacceptable?
You can tell us, “hey, lighten up, it’s just a joke” and add “it’s satire, we know it’s racist but we’re making a point about racism here.”
I am actually not of the opinion that Hollywood is mainstream America. And seriously, there are some messed up attitudes about race out there that are excused as satire, which I think is bull.
Case in point — I was chatting with a former co-worker via Facebook, and she was exulting about my pregnancy. Then she started saying something about mixed-race babies being the newest accessory. I let her make the joke two more times, then told her, “OK, stop referring to my child as a mixed-race baby.” (I’m used to her unconsciously offending me.) She started saying, no, its this British TV show, and its satire, and my other mixed-race couple friends think its hilarious. I said, that’s all fine and good, but just stop referring to my child that way.
We’re supposedly in this post-race age, where we’ve made so much progress that we have America’s first black president. But we’re still seeing Hollywood churn out movies based on tired stereotypes. I think I’m almost more offended that Hollywood keeps giving us drivel, rather than stuff that’s genuinely funny and riffs on stereotypes more creatively (Trin and I thought “The Ugly Truth” was hilarious — your typical romantic comedy with a lot of juvenile guy humor in it).