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Movies Bypass Asian And Pacific Islander Actors And Directors, Study Finds

The actor Dwayne Johnson is not only saving the world driving fastly and furiously, he is apparently also saving Hollywood from largely excluding Asian and Pacific Islander actors from leading roles in movies over the last dozen years, according to a new study.

"The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films" is another report about the pervasive whiteness of the film industry that arrives in the middle of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and amid growing anti-Asian violence in the U.S.

As the title states, the study by Nancy Wang Yuen, Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative analyzed 1,300 top-grossing movies to track representation of API people on both sides of the camera and among company executives from 2007 to 2019.

The authors say what they found shows just 44 films — 3.4% — featured an API lead or co-lead performer, and only six films were led or co-led by an API woman. Breaking it down further, the group's work reveals that of those 44 movies, 14 of them starred Johnson. That is a third of the films starring API people. Additionally, nearly 40% of the films reviewed had no API representation at all.

"People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving," Yuen said. "Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion."

Yuen noted that in 2019, 30% of API primary and secondary characters were either the only one in a film or never interacted with other API characters. "We need to see more than one API character on screen interacting with one another in meaningful ways," she said.

A little more than 7% of the U.S. population identifies as API and yet, the study, which was partly funded by Amazon Studios and UTA Foundation, shows they are nearly absent from mainstream movies. And a closer look at the characters they do portray presents more disheartening information. Over 41% of API characters in top 2019 films experienced some disparagement, including racist or sexist slurs. And 25% died by the end of the movie.

"With the rise of anti-AAPI violence in the United States, on-screen deaths of Asians and Pacific Islander characters are particularly jarring," Yuen said, adding that the portrayals "can fuel anti-AAPI hate."

Only six of the 1,300 films analyzed featured an API girl or woman as the lead or co-lead.

The study follows a recent survey showing that nearly 80% of Asian Americans say they don't feel respected and are discriminated against by their fellow Americans. In the larger pool of respondents, 42% of those surveyed say they can't name a single prominent Asian American.

Research on film industry executives behind the scenes is also abysmal, according to the report. Less than 4% of the 1,447 directors across the 1,300 top films were API.

"Forty-seven of these API directing credits were held by men, and three by women," the study states.

That doesn't include the recent win by director Chloe Zhao, who this year became the most decorated filmmaker in a single awards season and the first Asian woman to win the Academy Award's best director prize for Nomadland. Nor does it include the recent accolades for actor Steven Yeun who became the first Asian American man to land a Best Actor nomination, and Yuh-Jung Youn who took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy, making her only the second Asian actress to win an Oscar.

The report notes that "not one API woman received sole directing credit of a live action film across 1,300 of the top-grossing movies from 2007-2019."

Smith, who led the study alongside Yuen, says, "Inclusion of the API community thus far has been little more than lip service. Opening up opportunity behind the camera for the API community and in particular, API women, is essential to seeing more authentic, humanized portrayals on screen."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.