Friday, September 4, 2009

Let's do it to them before they do it to us (again): My obligatory thoughts on You Offend Me You Offend My Family's post

June Park of 'Sampler,' created by Jimmy J. Aquino and illustrated by Erwin Haya

You Offend Me You Offend My Family is a blog that was originally conceived to promote Finishing the Game, director Justin Lin's 2007 mockumentary about the obstacles Asian American male actors have to put up with in Hollywood. The blog name is derived from an Enter the Dragon line that the actor characters in Finishing the Game are asked to perform during auditions (the actual line is "You have offended my family, and you have offended the Shaolin Temple"). The people who worked on Finishing the Game recently became the talk of the Asian American blogosphere due to a You Offend Me post that points out the ineffectiveness of the Japanese American Citizens League's protests against a lame gag involving the beating of an Asian American used car salesman in ex-Chappelle's Show writer Neal Brennan's The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (because hate crimes are funny!). Ken Jeong is a hilarious stand-up whom I've seen perform live, and I love his performance in Role Models, but what the hell was he thinking when he agreed to do that scene?

(If Silver Streak-era Richard Pryor were asked to do a scene like that, he would have walked off the set and caused the shoot to be halted so that the scene would have to be changed. That's exactly what Pryor did during the making of Silver Streak when he was uncomfortable with how the white writers scripted a sequence in which characters are fooled by Gene Wilder's lousy disguise as a black man. Pryor's angry protest resulted in a more believably written reaction to Wilder's disguise--the gag was changed to a black shoe shiner who sees his disguise and doesn't buy it at all--and the revision helped make the bathroom sequence the funniest part of Silver Streak.)

In "Hollywood and Asians: Why Protests Alone Won't Change Anything," the You Offend Me blogger suggests that instead of protesting like the JACL, what frustrated Asian Americans ought to do is concentrate their energy on supporting Asian American filmmakers and seeing their movies (easier said than done--the Asian American community is so fragmented and divided, and there are so many different sub-communities, from Chinese American to Filipino American, that it's impossible to get all these sub-communities to flock to these films). Many Asian American bloggers agree with You Offend Me's post, while a lone dissenter, my occasional boss TMM, has been fuming about it.

I don't have much to say on this subject other than the You Offend Me guy is mostly right, and the Angry Black Woman and Byron Wong have best articulated my thoughts on the subject.

First, the Angry Black Woman's thoughts:
But until Asian Americans as a whole are willing to put down our money to support the work of our Asian American filmmakers—nothing will change.

It’s a good point. But something about it bugs me.

Because it assumes something that I’m not sure is true, and feeds into a bigger problem. What Phillip suggests is that if Asian Americans just go and view more Asian American films, this will show Hollywood there’s a significant demand for positive portrayals. The same reasoning, IMO, underlies African Americans’ patronization of black films (and African American Interest books, and so on) — we’ve taken to heart the racist rationalization that if we don’t make it ourselves, and go see it ourselves, we can’t expect the mainstream to follow suit.

Except… African Americans have been making it ourselves, since the Sixties. We’ve been going to see those films, too, enough to create several blockbusters, catapult several African American filmmakers to auteur status, and launch a few subcultural film/theater movements.

But has all this success — all this proof that we will support our own — really changed anything in Hollywood?...

We’ve got to support the positive portrayals that are already out there. And that includes work by other PoC, because all this stuff feeds into each other. We’ll get more successful black actors in Hollywood once we prove that Latinos/as will go and see them. We’ll get more Asian actors when we can prove they appeal to black audiences. We’ll see fewer pretendians when audiences start going to see real Indians. And so on.
And now, Byron's thoughts:
I agree that things won’t change until we start paying, and I agree with his statement that a lot that comes from independent Asian American media “sucks.” ... The Debut was horrible. Yellow was beyond horrible. I couldn’t even finish One Hundred Percent, despite the fact that Tamlyn was in it. I’ve financially supported all of these...

I’ve said this from day one... the problem is the writing. If we improve the writing, if we work to improve our depth of vision by studying and developing writing, everything else will fall into place.
Good God, Yellow blew. That moment in The Limey when the otherwise understated Terence Stamp snaps and snarls, "Tell him I'm fucking comiiiiing!," with a deranged look on his face? Great shouty acting. The perpetually cranky and one-note lead actor in Yellow? The worst shouty acting I've ever seen.

I prefer not to march outside movie studios, multiplexes or--and this was really dumb--the Disney Store (huh?). Protests and letterwriting campaigns accomplish very little. In response to the JACL's furor, Paramount removed the Asian-bashing sight gag from the Goods commercials. So what? The scene is still in the movie. Yay, JACL.

A few months ago, I finished writing a two-week arc of my webcomic The Palace that's about the subject of grassroots protests against movies that are whitewashed remakes or are racially offensive, but I haven't illustrated the arc yet. In my script, the main character says to a classmate who's protesting against an Avatar: The Last Airbender-like martial arts flick, "Aren't there more important things to protest?... The way to fight Hollywood is not to keep organizing protests... but to go make your own fucking movies."

Personally, I think the best way to rob these racially offensive movies of their power is to publicly ridicule them and rip them and their creators to shreds through humor (hence the Hill Street Blues catchphrase that's part of the title of this post--I want to see more Asian American comedians be verbally aggressive towards our enemies and emulate the attitude in Sgt. Jablonski's morning battle cry). We need to do the same things that one of my comedy idols, Paul Mooney, did to Driving Miss Daisy and horror flicks that keep killing off white women or having them sleep with monsters and vampires in both his stand-up act and his 1993 album Race, one of my favorite examples of activism through comedy. To me, there's nothing more powerful than the comedic smackdown Mooney gave to mainstream Hollywood during Race.

Mooney's ridicule of Driving Miss Daisy ("I'll take a bagel and beat the shit out of Miss Daisy") and much less funny but equally dead-on comments about the inane 1989 Best Picture Oscar winner from black celebrities like Spike Lee did more to tarnish the reputation of that movie than any protest would have done. As Lee said to New York magazine about Do the Right Thing's impact in comparison to the Jessica Tandy/Morgan Freeman movie's impact, "No one's talking about Driving Miss Daisy now." When AFI announced its list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, Driving Miss Daisy didn't make it. Do the Right Thing landed spot #96.

I'd love to see an Asian American comedian or actor ruin the box office grosses of an upcoming racist movie by snarking about that film while being interviewed by a talk show host or magazine writer. I wish that was the reason why The Goods tanked at the box office and quickly disappeared from theaters.

Bottom line? Let's take a cue from Byron and concentrate on improving our writing skills so that there can be more movies from us that people will remember far more than the Live Hard, Sell Hards and Driving Miss Daisys of the industry.


  1. Great post. I love Paul Mooney.

    When I first started blooging and writing about film I noticed that few film bloggers were talking about classic movies made by Asian directors so I've made an effort to write about Japanese films (an area I'm somehwat well-versed in) at my blog and the response has been pretty amazing.

    I get more emails and comments from people who have discovered Japanese films made in the '60s and '70s thanks to reviews I've written than I can answer. And I often get emails from Japanese readers who are surprised and thrilled to see an American writer celebrating Japanese cinema.

    I can only hope that a few of my reviews have encouraged people to seek out films that they would have overlooked or ignored. And in doing so, I hope that people will start having a richer undersatnding of the contributions made by Japanese directors.

    Sooner or later, I'd like to focus more on classic Hong Kong cinema but I can never find enough free time to write about everything I'd like to.

    I think one of the best things people (or bloggers) can do is write about overlooked and little seen films made by Asian directors with Asian actors. It might seem a like a small gesture but when you get 1000+ visitrs a day to your blog it can slowly start to make a somewhat larger and long-lasting impact than you can imagine.

    I've seen interest in classic Japanese cinema really take root since I started bloging and I've also exchanged comments and emails with people who work with companies releasing foreign-films in the US.

    I'm not sure what kind of impact - if any - my own blog has had on them, but I can only hope that it's helped generate some more interest in films that were previously ignored by many critics.

    Anyway, my point is that I think film criticism can often be an extremely powerful tool and when it's used smartly its effects can be hard to measure right away, but the long term gains are priceless.

  2. I should also mention that my recent John Hughes smack down was also motivated by the racism, stereotypes and classism in his films that was getting ignored by mainstream media and 95% of the film critics writing their teary-eyed obits. Sometimes you've got to fight fire with fire.

  3. Thanks. I was wondering when you were going to post that John Hughes smackdown I always wanted to read and hadn't realized you did it in a post about This Is England, which is an excellent post:

    Hughes' contempt for people of color in Sixteen Candles, National Lampoon's Vacation and Weird Science is the reason why I can't join in the love for Hughes movies. Even Molly Ringwald herself called out her former boss on how he portrayed or ignored people of color in his movies. However, I like Planes, Trains & Automobiles, which is his best movie, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. When Hughes stayed away from people of color, high schools and little kids who look like they're going to grow up to become serial killers, his films were okay.

    But yeah, The Breakfast Club is overwrought, overwritten conformist hooey. Doesn't Ally Sheedy's makeover just make your blood boil? Sheedy doesn't even look happy when she walks out in that Daisy Duck outfit.

    My Asian American colleagues resent Hughes for Long Duk Dong, yet they would still do little tributes to his films in their status updates or on their blogs as if all is forgiven. Fast Times, Repo Man, Better Off Dead, Heathers and How I Got Into College are far better '80s teen films and are more worthy of celebration. I'd rather see more tributes to Do the Right Thing than to Hughes' teen films, which is why I've done a few posts on Do the Right Thing.

    I appreciate what you're doing to boost Japanese cinema. (Is it me or do Point Blank and Danger: Diabolik appear to have been partly influenced by Tokyo Drifter?) I'd like to see more blogs do pieces on not just Asian cinema, but also Asian AMERICAN cinema, like You Offend Me You Offend My Family's recent post about the juicy roles Sam Fuller gave to Asian American actors in his films.

  4. The Breakfast Club is also to blame for what I call "the Breakfast Club episode," when the writers trap the characters in a room for the entire teleplay and they talk and talk and talk to each other and speechify and speechify and two of them confess their feelings for each other and agree to bang each other after they're freed from their predicament.

    Of course, actors love to do these eps, but I often find them to be a chore to watch, and they allow the writers to indulge in hokey and lazy writing. David E. Kelley has written Breakfast Club eps for almost all of his series (Chicago Hope, Boston Public, Boston Legal). Action series like She Spies and BBC's Robin Hood have done a Breakfast Club ep. (Yes, I used to watch She Spies. The black chick and the blond chick from That's My Bush were hot, and Carlos Jacott had great comic timing as the agents' handler.) She Spies did a Breakfast Club ep as a "bottle show" (industry slang for a cost-saving ep that doesn't require any new sets or guest stars), which is funny because every other ep of She Spies, with its per-show budget of five cents, was a bottle show.

    I don't know if the Wiseguy writers were inspired by The Breakfast Club when they scripted "No One Gets Out of Here Alive," the infamous mid-season finale in which Vinnie and Sonny kick the shit out of each other while locked in an empty movie theater and then in a moment that must have launched a million homoerotic fanfics by Wiseguy-watching housewives, Sonny gazes longingly at Vinnie to the sounds of "Nights in White Satin" (well, at least in the version that's not on DVD). Anyhow, that's still the best Breakfast Club-ish ep I've seen.