Hollywood still has a long way to go before filmmakers in front of — and behind — the camera reflect the diversity in our world, but that is not for lack of talent. From the Netflix sensation Squid Game to the Oscar-winning Parasite and Nomadland to Marvel’s Shang-Chi and Eternals, API-led projects are finally getting their due.
While the statistics for Asian/Pacific Islander (API) representation are still bleak (for example, An Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA) survey found that 35% of onscreen API characters onscreen from 2010 to 2019 embodied at least one common trope or stereotype), we are finally seeing some break-out hits that prove that API talent and stories are just as valid, entertaining, and in demand as white ones.
In the same APAPA survey, only 42% of Americans could name a prominent Asian American figure. Let’s change that right here and now.
Here’s a list of API talent you’re gonna want to know off the top of your head.
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Chloé Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who made history when she became the second woman — and first woman of color — to ever win the Academy Award for Best Director for her picture Nomadland. Zhao also co-wrote and directed the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Eternals, which grossed over $402 million at the worldwide box office and featured one of the most diverse casts in an MCU film yet.
Chloé Zhao’s advice for filmmakers: Work with your limitations
In 2018, Zhao told NPR’s Terry Gross:
“You either work with limitation or you let it work you … Back in 2010 to 2013, it was a tough time for the country financially, and for the industry, for everybody. No one was going to just throw me money to [make my films]. So, it was a blessing in disguise, because that style came out of it. We had to be friends with the limitations that we had, including the way we shoot, the time of day we shoot, who we cast, and how we run the set.”
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh has been dominating films without proper recognition for decades. From the 2000 game-changer Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, to the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Star Trek: Discovery, Yeoh has been slaying on-screen.
Now, with Everything Everywhere All At Once, it seems like she’s finally getting the spotlight she deserves.
Michelle Yeoh’s advice regarding representation: Be authentic.
“Don’t just put us in the film to complete the rainbow, you know? You have to give us a story, you have to give us a life. You have to give us ambitions and dreams; the character must have all these kinds of things, otherwise, it’s just cardboard.”
Pretty Much the Entire Cast and Crew of Kung Fu
The audience demand for CW’s re-envisioned Kung Fu is pretty clear — among the top 3% of shows, Kung Fu holds 8.7 times the demand of the average TV series in the United States. Developed by Christina M. Kim (who developed her writing resume on shows like Lost and NCIS: Los Angeles), the series features a predominantly Asian American cast, including Tzi Ma, Olivia Liang, Eddie Liu, Shannon Dang, and Tony Chung.
Christina M. Kim’s advice: Character Development!
“Writing rich characters, that’s where we really wanted to spend a lot of time in developing the show. I’ve been on shows where you couldn’t delve into the character’s backstory and shows where I was told by the showrunner, ‘Oh no … we won’t go into their personal lives.’ I love that on our show, we really get to know our characters.”
John M. Chu
John M. Chu had a strong directorial background going into Crazy Rich Asians, but the breakout success of that film really put him on the map. He followed up strongly with an on-screen adaptation to the Broadway musical In The Heights and now he’s in pre-production on the highly anticipated film adaptation of Wicked. Rumor has it, he’ll also be directing the pilot for the Disney+ series Willow, based on the film of the same name.
Chu grew up in an American immigrant neighborhood (his parents are from Taiwan and Hong Kong), which meant he related to the heart of the immigrant story in In The Heights — but he also had to pay attention to cultural differences in order to honor the Latinx community in the film.
John M. Chu’s advice for standing up for communities in need:
Chu told NBC Asian America:
“We’ve learned from [the Latinx community] about how to make change, and we need to be by their side if we’re asking others to be by ours. We’re all growing together. After all, the Latinx community, the Asian community are the fastest-growing communities in the United States right now. That’s our future.”
London-born Gemma Chan has managed to make an appearance in some major franchises: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Transformers: The Last Knight, Captain Marvel, Eternals, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Sherlock, and Doctor Who, just to name a few.
Next, she’s taking on a leading role — and an executive producing role — in a biopic about Anna May Wong, the first Asian American movie star. “Anna May Wong was a trailblazer, an icon, and a woman ahead of her time,” Chan said in a statement. “Her talent and her exploration of her art both in and outside of the U.S. was groundbreaking — and the challenges and prejudice she faced in the early 20th century as an actress speak directly to the conversations and the world we are navigating today.”
Gemma Chan’s advice for getting the greenlight: be passionate & proactive
In an interview with Esquire, Chan said:
“For me, it’s about finding the stories I want to tell; I very much don’t want to wait for the role to maybe fall into my lap.”
This list could go on and on. From Bong Joon-ho (Academy Award-winning director and co-writer of Parasite) to Hwang Dong-hyuk (the creator of Squid Game), we’re seeing how South Korean stories completely upend traditional American storytelling.
Meanwhile, talent like Kumail Nanjiani (writer and star of The Big Sick) and Nida Manzoor (creator of We Are Lady Parts) bring Pakistani heritage to light. Maya Erskine (who co-created and co-starred in the Emmy-nominated PEN15 along with Anna Konkle) played a fictional version of her 13-year-old self and cast her Japanese mother Mutsuko Erskine as her character’s mother in the series, allowing for an authentic exploration of growing up with mixed ethnicity in a predominantly white school.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against the Asian and Pacific Islander community escalated. This is clear evidence that equal representation on-screen is as important as it ever was. Art offers exposure to communities, experiences, and cultures other than our own — and that builds compassion.
Looking at this list, it’s pretty easy to see how simple it is to celebrate stories and talent from this particular community and to cheer on those who will follow in their footsteps.
Want to learn more about the screenwriting career? Check out these tips from 8 AAPI screenwriters!
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!