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A third of lead Asian American, Pacific Islander roles in top films played by 'The Rock,' study shows

"There just aren't enough roles for [Pacific Islanders] and Asian actors in general. And that's why we see The Rock so many times,” sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen said.
Dwayne Johnson;Kevin Hart;Karen Gillan
From left: Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart star in JUMANJI: Welcome to the jungle.Frank Masi / Sony Pictures

Startling new data reflect a large disparity in Hollywood, revealing that only 3.4 percent of the top-grossing movies featured Asian American or Pacific Islander leads over a 13-year span.

Just 44 films had an Asian American or Pacific Islander, or AAPI, front and center, and in 14 of them, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who is of Samoan descent, was the lead, according to a study released Tuesday as a collaboration of Nancy Wang Yuen, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Stacy L. Smith, the initiative's founder.

"Mainstream Hollywood isn't doing its job," said Yuen, a sociologist. "I'm just so grateful that there's more independent movies, and I think the awards circuits are recognizing these more authentic stories. So hopefully, that will then trickle over to mainstream Hollywood, but we haven't seen that in terms of the kind of history up to this point."

Researchers examined those behind and in front of the camera, including 51,159 speaking characters, from more than 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019. Not only did about 67 percent of the movies fall below proportional representation of the AAPI community — almost 40 percent failed to include a single member of the group.

Just 22 AAPI actors occupied the lead roles, compared to the 336 white men who had leading roles. While Johnson had a third of all the AAPI lead roles, Yuen emphasized that he isn't the issue.

"There just aren't enough roles for [Pacific Islanders] and Asian actors in general. And that's why we see The Rock so many times," Yuen said. "We don't see anyone else, because it's coming from behind the scenes. It's the storytellers, the people who are greenlighting the projects. The Rock succeeding could actually help bring more Pacific Islander actors."

Researchers also found glaring erasures of intersectional Asian American identities. Women were the faces of just six of the 44 films with AAPI leads, none of them over age 40. And there wasn't a single LGBTQ Asian American or Pacific Islander lead.

Yuen said the invisibility of such underrepresented groups on screen can damage young people's self-esteem.

"They are just not seen as mainstream by Hollywood," she said of intersectional marginalized identities, LGBTQ Asian Americans and those with disabilities. "Hollywood just isn't ready to tell those stories, despite the fact that ... there are audiences out there who want to see that."

When only one AAPI character is featured in a movie, it's even less likely that the character will have an intersectional identity, Yuen said. And even in the rare occasion when a character does embody multiple identities, it often goes unnoticed by viewers, because the character is often a one-dimensional representation and isn't given many lines.

An examination of the 200 top-grossing films of 2018 and 2019 showed that almost 75 percent of tertiary, or minor, AAPI characters spoke five lines or less of dialogue, which leads to flattened representations of Asian Americans, Yuen said. In the animated film "Spies in Disguise," for example, most of the Japanese characters serve as people for the lead "to beat up"; meanwhile, the secondary villain, Kimura, voiced by Masi Oka, isn't given a backstory.

"They don't even say a word. They just grunt," she said of many of the Japanese characters in the film. As for the secondary villain, she said: "We know nothing about him. There's no backstory, except for that he speaks with an accent. So the only thing that can be confirmed is that he's Asian and fits into Asian stereotypes."

When researchers looked at 79 primary and secondary AAPI characters across the top films of 2019, they also evaluated portrayals of the AAPI community, from invisible to "fully human," defined as having a full spectrum of relationships. Most characters fell into the categories of "silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated, and sidekicks or villains."

The historic emasculation of Asian men also persists, the study said, as 58 percent were shown with no romantic partners. In comparison, 37.5 percent of women were portrayed without partners.

Yuen said much of the lack of complexity and the authentic storytelling of many AAPI characters can be traced to the lack of representation behind the camera. Across the 13 years, 3.5 percent of directors were Asian American or Pacific islander, and of that group, only three were women. The study also showed that 2.5 percent of producers and 3.3 percent of casting directors were AAPI.

Having an AAPI at the helm or producing had a significant impact on representation in front of the camera. The study said that films with AAPI directors or producers featured more AAPI leads than those without and that AAPI directors and casting directors cast more AAPI actors in speaking roles than directors of non-Asian descent.

"The people, the writers, the directors, the producers — they're not Asian or Pacific Islander. So then you have a problem of source material, you have a problem of kind of authentic understanding, deep understanding of the community. So then, of course, superficial representations and tokenism is going to happen, because it's not on the forefront of their minds," Yuen said. "Even as they're trying to, quote-unquote, do better. They don't necessarily know what that best could be."

Despite the success of independent films like the 2020 drama "Minari" and the 2019 comedy-drama "The Farewell" in telling Asian American stories, Yuen said it's still important for the community to be represented in front of mainstream audiences, as well.

"I fight for more inclusion in the mainstream media ... because how else will we have greater influence on society?" she said.

"The majority of the United States isn't watching 'Minari.' They obviously don't know Steven Yuen, even though I feel like how could they not? They don't know Riz Ahmed. Right? They might not even understand the diversity of America, period, because they didn't even name Kamala Harris," she said, citing a recent study that showed that 42 percent of people in the U.S. can't name one Asian American.

"We need to exist in those mainstream spaces if we want to have influence in popular culture in the mainstream United States, because people unfortunately are not consuming those indies," she said.