Sorry Hollywood, you can’t make good art from bad stereotypes

stereotypes in hollywood pink stars on gray tiled street sidewalk
Photo by Ekaterina Belinskaya on

“If you don’t think representation is important,” said Mariko Tamaki, a Canadian artist and writer speaking at the 2017 Lakes International Comic Art Festival, “then you’re probably very well represented.”

It’s never easy for a white person to understand how their privilege harms the people who aren’t very well represented. But it’s not impossible. In fact, a scene from the 1993 movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story powerfully illuminates how it can happen. On their first date as a couple, Lee (Jason Scott Lee) and his girlfriend, Linda (Lauren Holly) are in a movie theater watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The audience suddenly erupts into laughter when Mickey Rooney’s grotesque Mr. Yunioshi makes his first appearance. 

Linda is laughing too — until she turns and looks at Lee’s face and sees his anger, humiliation, and disgust. In that frozen moment, Linda understands why Lee is appalled by the thing on the screen. She finally comprehends how monstrously offensive Mr. Yunioshi is. 

The entire film offers an emotional dramatization of Lee’s struggles as an unknown Chinese actor in Hollywood. It makes obvious a sad historical fact: if you’re the Other, your representation will almost always be cruel, stupid and hateful stereotypes like Mr. Yunioshi. In spite of his vibrant and charismatic performance as Kato in The Green Hornet (Lee was the sidekick who effortlessly overshadowed the lead actor), Hollywood kept rewriting roles Lee auditioned for and gave them to white men who would play counterfeit Asians. 

David Carradine getting the job as Caine in the 1970s TV series Kung-Fu was the last straw. Eventually Lee had to go to Hong Kong because he couldn’t find a job in the United States. This deep-seated bigotry was the boulder Bruce Lee had to push uphill during his career in Hollywood. And that boulder hasn’t gone away. Let’s fast-forward to the present.

Another Floundering Moment for Quentin Tarantino

Not so long ago, Tarantino was a guest on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, and they were discussing a controversial scene in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Bruce Lee, the legendary martial-arts icon, was portrayed as a rude, bullying, loudmouthed fraud. 

“I can understand his daughter having a problem with it. It’s her f*cking father. I get that. But anybody else, oh suck a d*ck!” Tarantino said. “Bruce had no respect for American stuntmen, he was always hitting them with his feet. He was always tagging them with his feet and his fist and it got to the point where they would refuse to work with Bruce. 

Going by Tarintino’s story, it’s not a good look for Bruce Lee. The problem is, it’s not true.

Matthew Polly, a Bruce Lee biographer, has discredited Tarantino’s assertions and even told Esquire in an interview that the scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood “is not only completely inaccurate, it turns Lee into a disrespectful blowhard and jerk.”

Being exposed as an unreliable narrator isn’t a good look for Tarantino, but being wrong has never stopped him from running his mouth before, and it’s easy to understand why. White Privilege means never having to say you’re sorry.

Throughout the rest of the interview, it’s clear Tarantino really has no idea why Lee’s daughter is upset. But he doesn’t care. Why should he? Bruce Lee’s immense cultural significance to the Asian community worldwide is just a mildly irritating abstraction to him; it’s way below Tarantino’s radar. Never mind why it might be important to others. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is meant as a valentine to a bygone era in the movie industry. But Quentin Tarantino’s petty vilification of Bruce Lee in the film is compelling evidence of why those “good old days” that so many white men are nostalgic for need to go away. Tarantino’s white privilege gave him the power to turn Lee into a stereotype.

Sadly, Tarantino’s condescending attitude isn’t an anomaly in Hollywood.

Disney Flounders Too

Bob Chapek is the new sheriff in town at Disney. He replaced Michael Eisner, the successful and well-respected former CEO of The Happiest Place on Earth. 

Unfortunately, nobody’s been smiling much lately, as the only noteworthy thing about Chapek so far is his uncanny talent for repeatedly shooting himself in the foot. Remember the contentious and unnecessary Black Widow controversy, during which Scarlett Johansson was blasted by the company after she sued for losses resulting from its breach of contract? Even the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney is frowning.

It gets worse. For example, while allegedly promoting the upcoming premiere of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, all Chapek had to do was say positive things about the movie. No big deal, right? Instead, Chapek sounded like a bad used-car salesman trying to move a beat-up Toyota with too many miles and bad brakes when he referred to the movie as “an interesting experiment.” 

Besides possibly damaging the movie financially, Chapek also ignored the unprecedented cultural significance of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, it being the first movie in the MCU universe where the lead is of Asian heritage. Chapek’s dismissive soundbite came across as rude, insensitive and tone-deaf.

Chapek didn’t just piss off Scarlett Johansson this time. Simu Liu, the actor portraying Shang-Chi in the movie, responded to Chapek’s disrespectful comment on Twitter: “We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise. I’m fired the f*** up to make history on September 3rd; JOIN US.”

Happily, besides being both artistically and financially successful, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings was a much-needed breath of fresh representation. There was finally a Hero who embodied and celebrated the values, history, myths, and culture of the Asian community. Not a sidekick, not the comic relief, not a white man in yellowface pretending to be Asian. 

Welcome to the new Hollywood. Some folks aren’t happy about it, though.

Old Hollywood Keeps Going

In Tarantino’s fevered imagination, “Political Correctness” is a straitjacket that inhibits creativity, and it’s driving old-school filmmakers like him (translation: white men) out of Hollywood. Around the same time as his outburst on Joe Rogan, he expounded on his frustration with another Fellow White Man, Bill Mayer: “But there has become a thing that’s gone on, especially in this last year, where ideology is more important than art. Ideology trumps art. Ideology trumps individual effort. Ideology trumps good. Ideology trumps entertaining.” 

No, Quentin. Representation is more important. Amplifying only one side of a conversation isn’t Art; it’s a Lie. This self-pitying tirade makes Tarantino sound like a white corporate guy who’s reluctantly attending mandatory diversity training because of his ugly history of bad behavior.

Hollywood has committed the crime of First-Degree Stereotyping for over a century. Back then, the Good Old Days when Men were White Men, and the Others were White Men Who Pretended To Be Non-White. That’s when two Jewish comedians put black shoe polish on their faces to become Amos and Andy, John Wayne scotch-taped his eyelids to play Genghis Khan, and Eli Wallach was a homicidal Frito Bandito in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Unfortunately, we are not past these errors. In the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Oops. Old habits die hard. That boulder Bruce Lee had to deal with is still there. Chapek’s cowardly silence in response to Florida’s abhorrent “Don’t Say Gay” legislation is proof of that. And I’d be willing to bet that Chapek wouldn’t have greenlighted Pixar’s Turning Red either. 

Thankfully, though, Bruce Lee isn’t pushing that boulder uphill by himself anymore. 

Welcome to Today’s Hollywood

Women and people of color don’t have to be compliant stereotypes for white male filmmakers and white male audiences anymore. In recent years, marginalized actors, directors and screenwriters finally have the opportunity to tell their stories outside of token appearances. Judas and the Black Messiah, Crazy Rich Asians, Moonlight, The Green Knight, In The Heights, Hidden Figures, Tangerine and Black Panther never would have happened in Tarantino’s revered, mythically whitewashed old Hollywood. In this new Hollywood, Stacey Abrams can be President of Earth on Star Trek: Discovery

However, old Hollywood continues to react negatively to these victories in representation, leading to the kinds of Big Lies perpetuated by Tarantino and his cronies. These are not simply battles over ideology; Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee explains that Tarantino’s unfounded story is irresponsible and dangerous because it puts vulnerable people at risk.

“At a time when Asian Americans are being physically attacked, told to ‘go home’ because they are  seen as not American, and demonized for something that has nothing to do with them,” she writes, “I feel moved to suggest that Mr. Tarantino’s continued attacks, mischaracterizations and misrepresentations of a trailblazing and innovative member of our Asian American community, right now, are not welcome.” 

Quentin Tarantino says he’s retiring after his next movie, and seeing how increasingly unhappy and frustrated he’s getting, maybe that’s for the best. If Tarantino is going to get upset whenever those uppity stereotypes talk back, then there’s no place for him in the new Hollywood. Fortunately, he has chosen to cancel himself.

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