The Importance of the Minutiae

I wrote this piece about why it kind of irritates me how quick we all are to refer to movies or TV shows as groundbreaking, and it made me think of something else: who says something needs to be revolutionary to be important? Hell, things don’t even have to be good to be important.

In that post, I brought up Harold and Kumar. And as I said, I don’t think that can be called revolutionary at all. But if you look at Kal Penn, one of the lead actors, you can see the clear progression of his career throughout the history of Hollywood movies with Indian leads. I remember reading an interview that he did once. It was part of the lead up to the release of The Namesake. And in it, he said that he was so happy to be working with Mira Nair because it was partially a movie she made in the 90s – Mississippi Masala – that inspired him to become an actor. The reason she chose him to play the role was that her son had seen Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and asked her to give him a shot because he was great. You would think that his image from that movie would have damaged his chances of getting the role, and in fact, it did. It made Nair think he was the wrong choice for the role. But he was only in a position where she was aware of him enough to both think he wasn’t a good fit and to have her mind be changed because of that ridiculous movie.

A movie directed by a brown woman with a brown lead inspired Penn to start acting, and a silly comedy where he played the lead launched his career and paved the way for his roles in The Namesake, Superman Returns, How I Met Your Mother, Designated Survivor, and more. From that perspective, Harold and Kumar may not have been revolutionary, but it was certainly important. But that wasn’t something immediately obvious. When it came out, it was just a dumb stoner flick with gross comedy that didn’t do well at the box office. It still helped the careers of its leads. It still mattered.

Sure, sometimes it’s clear when a work is important. Mississippi Masala was pretty clearly crossing boundaries and addressing topics few other movies did. It was a romance…but it was one that tackled the challenges of interracial relationships and intercommunity racism. It wasn’t clear what – if any – impact it would have in the long run, but it certainly was something new. Maybe you could call Harold and Kumar important at the time. I’m not sure anyone would, but you could say it. And it did have an impact. But the real impact isn’t something that could be seen until a few years later. It’s kind of like Star Trek.

Star Trek was a campy sci fi political drama that, in hindsight, looks hilariously terrible, despite the political allegories and moral questions. It was a trailblazer for representation even as declining ratings put it at risk of cancellation multiple times. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actress. She inspired Mae Jemison to study science. And Goldberg and Jemison proceeded to inspire countless people themselves. It goes to show that it takes years for the full impact of something to be seen. We need to give things more time before we decide what their place in history is. There are ripple effects for everything. Something may matter for one person, but that one person may matter for countless more. Something minor – the most trivial seeming of roles – can turn out to be more important than we could imagine. So maybe we should just take things as they are without rushing to declare it either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. Because if something is important, we’ll find out eventually. Why insist we can tell immediately?

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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.