Hollywood empowerment: From Coco to Black Panther to Crazy Rich Asians

by Karl Catarata | May 7, 2018 9:08 pm

This piece was originally published in AndACTION.

These past few months, Latinx family pride and Black excellence dominated Hollywood with the blockbuster releases of “Coco” and “Black Panther.” And now, Asian Americans are about to have our day with “Crazy Rich Asians.” When the trailer came out in late April, it took social media by storm. Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) like me went wild because for once, a movie that focuses on AAPI people won’t portray them in the stereotypical, negative, kung-fu-esque narratives. Mainstream media is finally trying to capture the hearts and minds of audiences across the states by depicting empowered minorities. The good news is that it seems to be catching fire and not stopping any time soon.

“Coco” told the story of a young boy named Miguel who dreamed of becoming an accomplished musician like one of his idols. Miguel struggled, often held back by his elders and society. Eventually, Miguel escapes and discover his personal power (Spoiler alert: It was his family all along!).

This movie was more than a depiction of a young Latinx wanting to achieve his dreams and being challenged by his family. It was a universal story that sparked a discussion among moviegoers about the challenges so many of us have faced when our families and society make our dreams feel impossible to achieve.

“Coco” earned more than $167 million at the box office. It showed Hollywood that it can make films that empower communities of color and celebrate them for their struggles, successes and humanity – and that they’re good for business.

And then Hollywood gave us “Black Panther” this past February. The movie tackled important issues of gender equity, Black excellence, racism and oppression. In the movie, the main characters challenge white-dominated institutions and traditions, and uncover how truth and lies play out within families. The all-Black cast highlighted the inequities of being Black in America and across the globe. #Wakanda became a trending topic on social media and the movie became the tenth highest-grossing film of all time. “Black Panther” mobilized the Black community throughout the country and during a time of heightened racial tension, drew much-needed attention to the systemic oppression Blacks have been subjected to for centuries.

There’s a deep sense of “finally!” when Hollywood focuses on under-represented groups and depicts communities of color in mainstream films. Just as Latinx and Black people hailed “Coco” and “Black Panther,” Asian Americans are now getting their turn with “Crazy Rich Asians.” Based on the trailer that was just released, we know it will be yet another movie that focuses on the empowerment of a minority community. Thankfully, the movie seems to be devoid of the stereotypical nerdy Asians or martial artists. Rather, “Crazy Rich Asians” (just like “Coco” and “Black Panther”) shows how success and struggle can go hand-in-hand: A sexy, rich “Prince Harry” of Singapore is caught between the approval of his parents or a life with a middle-class, Asian-American woman he loves. “Crazy Rich Asians” tackles some model-minority myths: Asians can be attractive, we face the same family struggles as other cultures and our culture can be beautiful (without the kung-fu, noodles and pandas). Note that I said “some” myths; the movie reinforces the misperception that most Asian Americans are wealthy, while the truth is that many Asian Americans face the same financial struggles as their neighbors.

Hollywood is finally recognizing the political moment taking place in the U.S. and creating films that show the power – and real lives – of communities of color. These movies help young people see themselves in mainstream Hollywood. That’s why we need even more movies like this that celebrate other communities of color such as Native Americans, Indian-Americans and people from the Middle East.

The question is: Do Hollywood screenwriters and directors simply believe that these movies will make tons of money at the box office? Or, more hopefully, could it be because they care about representation in movies beyond stereotypes and want to tell profound stories that reflect the nuances and power of communities of color? Maybe it’s both. Regardless, as these movies bring in dollars and fill seats, I hope that Hollywood continues its trend of using movies to spark conversations and create change to dismantle systemic racism, oppression and discrimination that many communities of color face.

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