On the surface, Minari is the sort of film that both Oscar voters and general audiences love. “The immigrant story is the backbone of Hollywood,” says the sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, who studies inequality in the industry. Films about aspirational characters, from 1927’s The Jazz Singer to 2015’s Brooklyn, have been popular with American moviegoers, she points out. However, one wrinkle is that the Asian and Asian American experiences are uniquely defined by fragmentation, and encompass dozens of languages, countries, religions, and ethnicities. “The notion of being Asian is a verb, not a noun ... we are so diverse on every axis,” explains Bing Chen, a co-founder of Gold House, an organization that advocates for Asian talent. It’s impossible, Chen told me, for any movie, even one with an “all Asian” cast, to capture the complexity of that identity. Indeed, Chung bristles at the way his film has been portrayed as representative of Korean American life: “I feel like [the Golden Globes controversy] goes much further than ‘Minari is an American film,’” he said. “I don’t know that that [statement] in and of itself captures everything that I feel.”
This fragmentation poses a challenge to a movie industry that has historically stuck to a handful of stereotypical narratives when telling stories about people of color. Over time, moving and intimate but flawed films such as The Joy Luck Club and The Namesake came to be seen as genuine depictions of entire communities, taking on a “veneer of authenticity,” Sean Metzger, a theater professor at UCLA, told me. In the rare instances when the Academy Awards recognized actors of color, they tended to gravitate toward comfortable tropes—for instance, rewarding Black actors when they appeared in films about slavery and Latino actors when they played subservient roles or criminals.
For Asians, one of the earliest films with this “veneer of authenticity” was 1961’s Flower Drum Song, a musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The movie was based on a novel by the Chinese American author C. Y. Lee and marketed as a “genuine” look into the Chinese community, but it was adapted by the white writers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And though the film scored several Oscar nominations, its entire cast of Asian American actors—including Nancy Kwan, who performed the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” since then a regularly covered hit—went unnoticed. Like a restaurant patron ordering a favorite dish on almost every visit, American storytellers became accustomed to using Asian culture as a spectacle, rather than a subject. And when they weren’t being replaced altogether by white actors in yellowface, Asian actors were relegated to supporting roles, melting into the margins.
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In the 21st century, Asian performers have taken on more prominent and nuanced roles in film and TV. Still, as with other actors of color, when Asians are recognized, it’s for types of roles or narratives that voters find familiar. Look at Dev Patel’s Oscars history: The British actor wasn’t nominated for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which heavily featured Bollywood influences—an aesthetic unfamiliar to many white viewers. But Patel was nominated for playing an Australian Indian adoptee in 2016’s Lion, which some critics saw as a white-savior tale. The Japanese actor Ken Watanabe wasn’t nominated for 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima, but got a nod for his work in 2003’s The Last Samurai. The former was told in Japanese, from the perspective of Japanese soldiers in World War II, but the latter was a fish-out-of-water story that centered on Tom Cruise and featured Watanabe in a wise-mentor role. That’s not to say those weren’t deserving nominations, only that awards voters seemed to prefer performances that echoed what they’d seen and enjoyed before.