Organization raised concerns with Sony Pictures back in 2005
LOS ANGELES–Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and its depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, is upset that 21, the new film starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth and based on the best-selling novel “Bringing Down the House,” chose a white male lead instead of an Asian American and that Asian American actors were denied the opportunity to get meaty roles in a true-life story that featured mostly Asian Americans.
Ben Mezrich’s 2002 book was based on the true story of an MIT professor who taught 10-12 of his students how to count cards and beat Las Vegas casinos at blackjack. The majority of the players were Asian American, and the lead member of that student team was Jeff Ma, an Asian American. Although the filmmakers were aware of Ma’s role (he served as a consultant), the producers chose to give his part to a white British actor, Jim Sturgess. Two smaller, undeveloped roles went to Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira. MANAA had been aware that producers Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti were “white-washing” the project back in 2005 when Mezrich told a forum at MIT that he was disappointed that Sony executives had decided to make most of the students white.
On October 21, 2005, MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki raised the organization’s concerns with Brunetti, who said he did not care about realistic ethnic casting and was merely looking for “the best actor for the role”- a common excuse producers use to cast white people in place of minorities. Brunetti said talking about casting was premature as he hadn’t locked in a director. MANAA Vice President Jeff Mio attempted to speak with executive producer Elizabeth Cantillon, but his calls were ignored. Mio expressed concerns about the film in a letter to her, which was cc’d to Amy Pascal (Sony Pictures chairwoman), Doug Belgrad (President of Production), and Devon Franklin (Director of Development). It was also ignored. After Australian Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) had been secured as director in 2006, Mio wrote to the same executives and once again tried to speak with Cantillon but was rebuffed. Sony publicist Steve Elzer contacted Mio only to tell him that the casting of the film was none of his business.
Says Aoki, “Asian American actors rarely get the opportunity to shine by playing meaty roles, and even when there’s a project crying out for their casting- like in 21- they get pushed aside so white people can play them instead. Brunetti said he was only looking for the best actors for the roles. Yet clearly, the producers and director exemplified nepotism and a lazy approach to casting: Producer Kevin Spacey got to play the MIT professor, Spacey asked Kate Bosworth, his co-star in two movies (Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns), who had also been directed by Luketic in Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, to be one of his students. The Australian director picks a British actor, Jim Sturgess, as his lead, who, with Jacob Pitts (another student on the 21 team), were both seen in Across the Universe.
“Were Asian American actors even seriously considered for the lead role? How many got to audition for it? “What’s frustrating is that many of the executives involved with this film also worked on successful projects featuring Asian and Asian Americans as the stars: Producer Michael De Luca was President and COO of New Line Pictures and created the successful Rush Hour franchise starring Jackie Chan. Executive Producer Brett Ratner directed all three Rush Hour films. Executive Producer William S. Beasley executive produced another picture starring Chan, The Tuxedo. And Director of Photography Russell Carpenter shot the two Charlie’s Angels movies starring Lucy Liu.
“All of these people are aware that films with Asian and Asian American stars can be successful. So why did they chicken-out and go with a primarily white cast? ‘Bringing Down the House’ was a best-seller which sold over a million-and-a-half copies, not hurt by the fact that most of its characters were Asian Americans (in fact, Mezrich said a white person betting a lot of money in Vegas would stand out while an Asian would be less conspicuous). A film that accurately reflected that reality would not have turned off movie-goers; it would’ve drawn them more toward it. The filmmakers didn’t even bother using many Asian American extras to create a believable MIT student body, which is 26% Asian American. In 21, you see maybe two faces in a math class taught by Kevin Spacey. How hard is it to find Asian American people who don’t have to utter any lines? It doesn’t take any acting talent. Ah, but it takes some intelligence on the part of the filmmakers.”
For MANAA’s overall review of the movie, visit www.myspace.com/manaala