Filming has begun on the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestseller Crazy Rich Asians, which features Hollywood’s second all–Asian cast ever. (The last all–Asian cast was featured in the 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s modern classic, The Joy Luck Club.)
Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) and Henry Golding (a newcomer, previously a TV presenter) star in this tale of: the intrigues of old–money families in Singapore (the titular “crazy rich Asians”) and how an American–born Chinese woman navigates their world, entirely foreign to hers.
“Asians” is in the title of the book, so you might think that of course the movie’s cast will be mostly (if not completely) Asian. Historically, though, simply describing or depicting a character as Asian in the source material hasn’t been enough to get an Asian actor cast to play the character in Hollywood’s live–action adaptations: consider the recent cases of Aang (Noah Ringer) in The Last Airbender, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Doctor Strange and the titular character of Ghost in the Shell (Scarlett Johansson). All were East Asian, explicitly or implicitly, in their original iterations; all were played by Caucasian actors in their respective films.
Counterarguments often run the lines of: “the main character of Ghost in the Shell doesn’t look Japanese / isn’t even human / uses an assumed name.” These arguments, however, misunderstand the issue. The problem with whitewashing is as much so about accuracy as it is representation. Hollywood often ignores its social responsibility. Every child deserves to have favorite actors and characters who look like them, who let them know that they can be something, regardless of what society tells them about the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. And on a more practical note, whitewashing narrows the already limited pool of reasonable, non–stereotypical roles available to non–white actors. (See Master of None for a crash course in the sorts of stereotypes that talented actors of color are often forced to play, if they want to eat.)
Kwan, to his fans’ delight, has directly addressed the latter issue in a Facebook post:
Three years ago I sat across a table from Nina Jacobson in LA and told her that my dream was to make "Crazy Rich Asians" a showcase for the amazingly talented actors of Asian descent from all over the world. Nina promised to make my dream come true and she kept her promise.
Crazy Rich Asians is a story that could have been dismissed (Crazy Rich White New Yorkers, after all, has been told many a time) or whitewashed (to be “less Asian” and “more marketable”)—but neither of those things happened. It’s an Asian story that’s being told on the big screen, featuring the big–name, all–Asian cast it merits.