Hollywood Still Basically Won’t Give Asian Actors a Chance

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and co. in Jumanji
Photo by Frank Masi, © 2016 CTMG and Sony

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which takes place in May, is a recognition of the communities’ influence on and contributions to the United States. It’s also a time to take a hard look at the harsh reality faced by API people—and particularly those in America, where anti-Asian hate crimes have surged up to nearly 150 percent over the past year, prompting a movement to #StopAsianHate.

The injustice is glaringly apparent in a new study that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. Its examination of 1,300 of the top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2019 reveals just how much progress Hollywood has yet to make, starting with the fact that only 44 of those films had Asian actors, or even Asian costars, driving the plot. What’s more, nearly 40 percent of the films had no API representation whatsoever.

2018 saw the number of speaking characters played by API actors hit 9.6 percent. Admittedly a vast improvement from 2007’s 3.5, the rate soon dropped by 1.2 percent the following year. More broadly, lead actors regularly take a hit, too: Of the API actors who scored leading or co-leading roles in a top-grossing movie over the course of 13 years, 59 percent only got the opportunity once. Those stats are just the tip of the iceberg that is the 47-page report. There were, for example, only 15 LGBTQ characters played by API actors—and less than two percent disabled characters—over the course of 600 films between 2014 and 2019.

The industry is particularly tough for API women, only six of whom made it into those 44 lead films. (None were LGBTQ, nor over the age of 40.) But Hollywood has been fruitful for one API actor in particular: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose mother was Samoan and father was Black Nova Scotian. His IMDb page single handily represents one-third of all API-lead films found in the study.

“I identify as exactly what I am - both,” he wrote on Twitter in 2019. “Equally proud. Black/Samoan.” He also denied ever being booked as the first Black champion in wrestling, asserting that he “transcended race.”

Thanks to Johnson, we know at least some Asian actors will soon appear on screen. The former professional wrestler has no less than seven films in the works, including DC Comics’s Black Adam, opposite Noah Centineo, and Red Notice, opposite Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot.

Perhaps some progress would be made if more API got the opportunity to work behind the scenes. Alas, the disparity persists there, too; less than four percent of directors—and less than three percent of overall creatives—behind the top 1,300 films between 2007 and 2019 were API.