The Problem With Our Urge To Declare Any Representation Groundbreaking

“This movie is the first [insert overly narrow category] film. This is so important! Everyone go watch it!” People say things like that all the time. Not just about movies, even – about TV shows, about characters, about directors. We see it with which superheroes are brought to screen, we see it with who’s cast in what big budget movie, we see it with who’s directing an upcoming blockbuster. Right now, we’re seeing it with most of the discussion around  Crazy Rich Asians. And I get it. I do. But I also think it’s getting a little much.

I’m not talking just about the idea that it’s silly to go watch a movie you don’t like the look of just for the sake of representation with no other reason. I’m talking about the concept of hailing a movie as revolutionary just based on the diversity of the cast. Because here’s the thing: If we’re gonna act like Crazy Rich Asians is some kind of pioneer for depicting rich Singaporeans, by the same logic, you can argue that the Harold and Kumar movies are some of the most important and groundbreaking movies in years. Does that sound right to you?

Now, I’m probably not even close to the best person to talk about said movies. I literally could not watch the second movie because the first one was just over the top crass, and I do not do well with toilet humour. But these movies are buddy comedies with Asian leads. They challenge the idea that “Asian” means East Asian and nothing else. They counter the model minority myth, while also not going with the idea that their Asian lead characters are poor, uneducated taxi drivers or convenience store owners. They helped both John Cho and Kal Penn, who were both largely unknown at the time, become much more widely recognizable, to the point where both actors credited them with helping them land other roles. They made actual points about something. From that perspective, they’re far more groundbreaking than movies like Crazy Rich Asians, which is a kind of creepy wealth fantasy.

I don’t think the Harold and Kumar movies are actually groundbreaking. To suggest they are seems ridiculous to me. While all of what I said above about them is true, none of that changes the fact that they weren’t good movies; they didn’t make much at the box office; and while they helped Cho and Penn’s careers, they didn’t clearly lead to more movies centring around Asian characters. My point is that you can make the case that practically anything is groundbreaking.

Crazy Rich Asians matters in that it’s a fun, lighthearted rom-com with a predominantly Asian cast. That’s not a movie we see often, and it’s great. But I get uncomfortable with how much is being read into it. On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people say a movie can’t be everything when people point out the lack of representation of Singapore’s ethnic minorities, and, yeah, that’s kind of the point. It’s just a story about a group of people that don’t often get stories made about them. We’re celebrating movies that are perfectly fine and that do something valuable in bringing more Asians and Asian Americans to screen, but do we really think that that in itself is something revolutionary? A step forward, sure. But hardly something that’ll ~change Hollywood forever. It’s a romantic comedy about rich people starring several known entities – Constance Wu, well acknowledged as the absolutely hilarious breakout star of Fresh Off The Boat; Michelle Yeoh, with her career going back decades and including roles in works ranging from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Star Trek: Discovery; Ken Jeong, long recognized for his comedic roles; and more. It’s not tackling and difficult issues. It’s just a safe topic featuring Asians instead of white people.

I’m all for light movies starring people of colour that don’t involve drama or political statements, because existing isn’t one of those. There’s no reason why Crazy Rich Asians has to be anything other than what it is, which is a feel good romance. But taking a stand and drawing attention to serious world issues is what makes something revolutionary. How groundbreaking can something be when it’s a safe story that, while starring minorities, is about people that aren’t marginalized in the context of the setting and has no bold stances? It’s an escapist story set in Singapore that’s targeted at Americans. It tries to apply the Western perspective of racism to an entirely different cultural context through a combination of erasing ethnic minorities, ignoring the enormous wealth disparity, and glossing over the awful treatment of migrant workers by pretending it doesn’t exist. There’s not really anything fundamentally wrong with the movie. But I’m not going to call it groundbreaking.

Stories have enormous power. Philadelphia opened people’s eyes to the reality of AIDS. It’s almost certain that Blackfish was part of the reason SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding orcas and end their theatrical shows. Victim‘s sympathetic depiction of a gay man in the early 1960s helped change attitudes and maybe even pave the way towards the decriminalization of homosexuality. Those are what I call revolutionary. They made a profound and obvious impact. Crazy Rich Asians does what it does, and that’s fine, but I think it’s silly to act like that’s a bold and courageous action.

I love Constance Wu, so, yeah, I’m going to go watch this movie. She’s made so many episodes of Fresh Off The Boat worth it, which puts her in the small, distinguished category of actors that can draw me to the theatre. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. It looks like a movie that I’ll have a good time watching. But revolutionary? Nah. That’s a word I’m going to hold in reserve for works that earn it.

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‘Quantico’ and a Sense of Relief

It only really hit me that I was just watching Quantico out of habit rather than enjoyment when it got cancelled and I felt kind of relieved rather than sad. I started to think about why that is, and I ended up considering just how much the show as changed since its first episode.

The show has been bleeding actors from the get-go. Most of the original ones are gone, which is disappointing, seeing as some of those characters and topics actually pushed serious boundaries in television. Take Nimah and Raina – we’re talking about two of the most multifaceted Muslim women in Western media ever. Nimah is an atheist with cultural ties to Islam. She’ll pray on occasion, but that’s it. Raina is a much more seriously religious person, while not letting anyone else dictate the terms of how she lives her life, however contradictory it may seem to others. Alex displayed casual Hinduism, from her om bracelet to the statuette on her dresser. But she eats beef and doesn’t pray. Simon is from a conservative Jewish family, and his religious background informs much of his opinions on the politics of the Middle East.

These approaches to the characters were met with a lot of criticism. People disliked Priyanka Chopra’s accent being Americanized to play Alex and called it erasure, as if the show was pretending she’s not Indian. Raina taking off her hijab and kissing Simon was met by significant backlash. Simon’s criticism of the IDF resulted in the show being attacked by the Zionists of America and the Jewish showrunner facing rampant accusations of antisemitism. There is a discussion to be had about many of the criticized aspects of the show. But I think the fact that these character choices were so controversial demonstrate both a need for their existence and a need for wider representation and discussion of current issues in media, which is why I find it so sad that Simon, Nimah, and Raina are no longer in the show.

Beyond the characters, I think the theme has shifted. The first season was essentially about how the FBI is a fundamentally flawed organization, but the way to change that isn’t by tearing the whole thing down, it’s by fighting to make it better. As Liam said when he was taunting Alex, it’s not something to be proud of. It’s the organization that tried to blackmail MLK, put the Japanese in internment camps, and let flawed DNA put innocent people in prison. Throughout the show itself, the FBI covered up multiple failures on their part, multiple tragedies that occurred because of them. Shelby tried to break the law as a trainee to get revenge on her parents. A large number of trainees were okay with doctoring evidence. Hannah was uncomfortable coming out, possibly partially because of her job as an agent. There are good people there that sincerely want to do good, but the organization has a very negative history. They portrayed the IDF in a similar fashion. Simon is a good guy, but the organization itself is deeply flawed.

I will always be grateful for season one of Quantico. It mattered. It took a very much nondiverse organization and not only made the fictionalized version diverse, it presented that diversity as the key to doing better. Things won’t get better through a white guy getting mad and trying to tear everything down. It’ll get better with an increasingly diverse workforce and people within the organization saying, we have to be better than this.

The first season had a point. Even at its most soapy, there was a focus that season two just didn’t have. From the first episode to the last, there was a central idea and running themes. Did they occasionally discard points, or have weird threads that got dropped partway through, like the super uncomfortable love triangle between Simon, Nimah, and Raina, or the year Alex’s family didn’t know where she was? Sure. But on the whole, it was plotted much better. Season two was messier. The present timeline was compressed into the span of about a day. The dual timelines were dropped in the second half of the season, which was about a totally different thing. Characters from the first half were gone. It felt clumsy and haphazard. And season three? I don’t even know what’s going on there. I wrote a post about how Designated Survivor got more cynical in season two, and that’s pretty close to what Quantico has been doing. Maybe not more cynical, exactly, but it’s certainly been less critical.

Season two still had some of that same point, except the focus moved to criticizing the CIA and its tactics, rather than the FBI. It was clumsier and felt more like the writers were making it up as they went along. I didn’t like the fact that Claire’s collaborating with Liam never came up. We were told that the point was supposed to be that sometimes, people get away with things, but that would have rung a lot more true if it were even mentioned from time to time that they didn’t like or trust her. Instead, the other guy collaborating with terrorists was made out to be a huge deal, totally unprecedented, and Claire was hailed as a hero. It felt far more white feminist than I’d grown accustomed to seeing. Nor did I like the fact that the diversity in season two wasn’t as elegantly handled and woven into who the characters are as it was in season one. But despite  all of that, I was mostly okay with it because it still felt recognizable. It still had a diverse cast, notably adding Sebastian, a deeply Christian Asian man whose religious faith left him struggling with his sexuality to the point of sending himself to conversion camp. It was still critical about the world we  live in. It actually felt like it was about something.

I think Joshua Safran departing as showrunner changed things for the worse. Of course the show wasn’t perfect during his tenure – he set the precedent for the overplayed romantic drama, after all. But he clearly cares about the issues in today’s world. He didn’t present it like he had the answers, but like he saw the problems and cared about the solutions. The show he created had a soul. It had a heart. It had good characters and meaningful ideas, not just throw in whatever adds romantic drama and action.

The show started to lose my attention somewhere in season two, and I think I’m only watching season three because I want something to watch. Quantico season one was very enjoyable. I loved watching it. And, like with Designated Survivor, I’ll look back fondly on it. But this season, and to a lesser extent, the preceding one, dropped too much of what I originally fell in love with. Now I’m just relieved that it’s going to be over soon.

Why I Want Mira Nair To Direct An X-Men Movie

I love the X-Men with all my heart, but the film universe exhausts me. As much as I enjoy aspects of it, on the whole, we’re talking about two decades of tokenism and cynically exploitative use of minorities. The post I linked to was about Jubilee in Apocalypse, but the issue is so much broader than that – the treatment of Storm, Darwin, and Psylocke. The shameless queerbaiting and use of scenes reminiscent of a person coming out without ever including an LGBTQ character, to the point of going out of their way to exclude one (Karma, in The New Mutants). Turning the universe that has traditionally been about oppression and discrimination into what’s mostly just a set of generic action movies and focusing excessively on Wolverine, the one character that’s doesn’t fit into that theme. It’s a clear sign that Fox needs to let minorities tell their own stories, and one of the directors that I think would be well suited to do so is Mira Nair.

Nair has been producing consistently good work for years, and she’s been doing it completely unapologetically. For whatever reason, despite her long career and good work, she’s not a huge name. Possibly, it’s because of the type of movies she directs – even when she’s working with a big studio, her works come across much more indie than anything else. She doesn’t do the big, blockbuster type things. She turned down directing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it interfered with The Namesake. She’s worked with Reese Witherspoon, Lupita N’yongo, Denzel Washington, and several other big name actors, but her movies are the sort of low budget, understated pieces that fly under the radar, even if she doesn’t have much of a specific “type” of movie. All of that means that her making an X-Men movie would be unlikely, but also that she’d be perfect for the job.

Nair isn’t a huge name to the general public, but her work matters – her 1992 movie, Mississippi Masala, was one of the reasons Kal Penn started acting, because it was through her that he could see people that looked like him on the screen. Her movies are filled with heart without being saccharine or overly sentimental. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths, nor does she present grim, hopeless stories. As such, she’d be able to capture what the X-Men and the mutants mean to a whole lot of comics fans and depict the seriousness of the mutant metaphor without making a movie that’s just more of the allegorical minorities suffering endless persecution.

Nair has demonstrated repeatedly that she’s capable of telling this story, because the core of the X-Men is supposed to be civil rights, discrimination, oppression, family, and Nair’s body of work shows off her ability handle those issues very well. The Namesake is a story about family and a character struggling to find himself, just like most stories of new people joining the X-Men or manifesting their mutation. Mississippi Masala is a romance that also takes on race relations and intercommunity racism without ever falling into the trap of treating any group as a monolith – if Nair were to direct an X-Men movie, she’d be well suited to illustrating the perspectives of the different factions without glossing over any of the flaws.

Give me more personal, emotional, human X-Men stories. Take a step back from destruction and the deaths of all the X-Men (twice was too many times, I can’t take that again) and go back to the stories teammates and friends, students and teachers, found families. The X-Men were built on relationships between characters, and Mira Nair bringing them to life in a movie would be a delight to watch.

 

 

The Jubilee Problem in ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

It’s been a year and a half, and I’m kind of still bitter of the way Apocalypse handled  Jubilee. Not even because she was basically a glorified extra, but because of the sheer exploitativeness of it all. No one would have had any objections to Jubilee not being in Apocalypse. She was in the original trilogy, however briefly. She’s always been a part of the younger generation. She should be a contemporary of Kitty, not of Scott. She’s one of the older X-Men’s students and future teammate, not their peer. There is plenty of canonical basis for her not being around yet. No one would have expected her or been upset that she wasn’t included. But she was.

She was brought into Apocalypse, which also could have been fine if handled properly. But it wasn’t. They brought in Lana Condor, who was very excited about the role, and advertised the hell out of her to get other people excited, too. To an extent, that’s how the film industry works. But it also felt tasteless to exploit a group’s thirst for representation so blatantly. She didn’t have a big role. She was in the movie for a few minutes before being left behind, without even using her powers once. That didn’t stop the studio from promoting her as if  she were a main character.

There’s a whole page on TV Tropes dedicated to the concept of advertising a character that doesn’t end up appearing much. Most of the time, though, that happens because said character is played by a popular actor, or, in the case of comics/their adaptations, are themselves a popular character. In Apocalypse, it wasn’t either of those. Jubilee was Lana Condor’s first role, and while she’s a well known and reasonably well liked character, she’s not really one of the A-List. In fact, opinions of her tend to be highly polarized. She was essentially the attempt at creating a Kitty Pryde of the 90s, and Kitty Pryde is one of the most popular X-Men. So the advertising in the film? That was pretty clearly an attempt at capitalizing on the lack of and desire for Asian representation.

I personally can’t say I really care about Jubilee one way or the other. For a variety of reasons, she’s never really resonated with me. But she’s an Asian female character in a film universe dominated by white people. She’s a character a lot of people have grown up with. She’s a character that a lot of people were excited to see. The X-Men film franchise has a diversity problem despite being about diversity. The Gifted has handled said issue much more competently, and the contrast is painfully clear. Diversity is more than just black and white. We can’t keep having X-Men movies with an all white cast except for one token black character. It’s time to move past that and actually embrace the spirit of what the X-Men have represented for decades: diversity and civil rights.