Film could’ve been just as successful- and more accurate- with Asian American stars
LOS ANGELES – 21, the movie starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, and Kate Bosworth, will be issued on DVD on July 22nd. The controversial film, based on the best-selling novel Bringing Down The House, told the true story of the MIT professor who taught his students how to beat Vegas at blackjack and make millions. In reality, the professor, the player who scored the most money, and most of the team, were Asian American. In the movie, they were mostly portrayed by white actors- Kevin Spacey as the professor, and Jim Sturgess as the lead member. In this case, the ethnicity of the players was pertinent to the real-life drama. According to House author Ben Mezrich, a white person winning a lot of money in Vegas would raise suspicions, whereas Asians winning a lot would not.
Prior to shooting 21 in 2007, Sturgess had never starred in a film, and Across the Universe flopped upon release later that Fall, barely making back half of its $45 million budget. The British actor was not a household name. The fact that 21 grossed $81 million without big stars demonstrates it succeeded not because of the actors but its concept. Therefore, Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA- the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and its depiction and coverage of Asian Americans), believes the movie could have done just as well with Asian American stars as well-known as or better known than Sturgess (e.g. John Cho, Ivan Shaw, Masi Oka). Chinese American Jeff Ma, the real leader of the team, inflamed Asian Americans when he told USA Today, “I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.”
Boycott21 and other anti-21 websites quickly sprang up. After the “white-washing” issue was raised on Entertainment Weekly’s website, producer Dana Brunetti wrote: “Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian-American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.” But Guy Aoki, MANAA’s Founding President, had spoken to Brunetti about the film in October of 2005. Back then, Brunetti said he did not care about realistic ethnic casting and was merely looking for “the best actor for the role”- a common excuse to cast white people in place of minorities. Says Aoki, “Asian American actors are 40 years behind African Americans in being allowed to play themselves in their own stories. 21, unfortunately, continues that discriminatory tradition.”