‘Yellowface: Asian Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood’

As always—representation matters

(Courtesy Kali Pictures)

Directors Julia and Clara Kuperberg’s tough-to-swallow (but more than fair) documentary Yellowface: Asian Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood might have come out in 2019, but it just hit the HBO Max streaming service this week, and should be considered a must-watch for cinephiles of all levels.

In a nutshell, Hollywood both faces and self-generates an ongoing series of issues surrounding how Asian stories are told, who plays Asian characters and why, after so many years, it still blames audiences for an appalling lack of Asian representation. Through interviews with film historians and actors, the Kuperbergs posit that much of the problem stems from three major issues: The perception that Asian culture is a monolith; socio-political detritus—including the long dead puritanical streak Hollywood once had; and leftover World War II feelings spurred by propaganda—and the tired crap and pablum from the era of the Hays Code, which wouldn’t allow for interracial romance, sexual content, etc.

The Hays Code is long-gone and there is no shortage of Asian talent, but casting directors consistently pigeonhole and typecast Asian actors, if they’re even cast at all. Assuming they do land roles, there is little to no delineation between cultures, and more often than not, the parts fall into that of martial artist or some sort of overly-stoic stereotype. And that’s before Yellowface even delves into shocking examples of white folks playing Asian roles. Marlon Brando as Sakini in 1956′s The Teahouse of the August Moon feels particularly glaring, as do performances by Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Lee and literally anyone who ever played Charlie Chan. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s alone is nauseating. From prosthetics and disgusting accents to cartoons and US military training films, the bullshit is so commonplace and myriad, in fact, that it almost feels like a whole lot of old people should get to apologizing.

And though we might be tempted to look back and chalk the racism up to its being of a different time but, the film notes, things have not gotten much better. Look to Tilda Swinton’s Asian-esque role in Marvel’s Doctor Strange films; consider how 1990′s Come See the Paradise remains the only mainstream narrative film about the Japanese American internment camps. Even that film’s star, Tamlyn Tomita, points out in the documentary how much of its content aged poorly—it’s also more than 30 years old at this point.

Yellowface stumbles a tad in its short running time and lack of talking heads. Just when it feels like it’s getting to some really good points, it’s over, and there’s not a whole lot of perspectives. Still, it gracefully suggests how moviegoers and filmmakers face a bit of a conundrum, but one that seems to be further untangled with every blockbuster Asian-led film over the last several years. Movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All at Once prove that audiences of all ilks will absolutely turn up for the movies that aren’t just about white people. It’s a good start, but moviegoers will need to self-evaluate and ask themselves what’s important. The folks who make movies even more-so.


+You need to know this stuff

-Longer runtime would have been nice; too few voices

Yellowface: Asian Whitewashing and Racism in Hollywood

Directed by the Kuperbergs

HBO Max, NR, 54 min.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.