The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, June 05, 2009

A different perspective on Carradine's career.

An interesting perspective on David Carradine's career, writing by an Asian with political consciousness. While reasonably respectful of the man, he is seriously critical of his choices. I loved the "Kung Fu" series, but if it had been a "Shaft" series played by a white in blackface, I would have been horrified. I get it. The justification is that he was half-white, so it's O.K. for him to be played by a white guy. Right. I think that the major litmus test for whether you buy that is whether it works out to your racial advantage.

The term "Yellowface"--for white actors who play Asians--is interesting. I hadn't heard it, and rather like it. Here's something odd. I've seen hundreds of Japanese and Chinese films, and have never seen one put an Asian in "white" makeup to play a Caucasian. It is tempting to think that, for some reason, whites consider themselves the universal human type, that Joel Gray can play a Korean, Peter Lorre a Japanese, Boris Karloff, Sidney Toiler, Christopher Lee or David Carradine can play Chinese. Why? I say it is because Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Kwai Chang Kane, Mr. Motor, or Chuin were characters with intellect, force, masculinity, and even complexity. In order for white audiences to sense their "inwardness" the actors had to be white. Note that, since it became unfashionable for whites to play such roles NONE of these characters have appeared again. It is just so sick and wrong. And comes, I think, from being so powerful for so long that you can hallucinate that the world revolves around you. Oh, hell, everybody believes that, and has myths to back it up (with the exception of American blacks, whose mythology lifts whites above them. Yuck.) But America and Europe have been so powerful, for so long, that I suspect there is so much political, economic, artistic, religious, and even linguistic support for the belief that as the world browns, a LOT of people are going to freak out. It will feel as if the world is ending.

No. The world is just awakening from a dream. Not a good one, either.


Marty S said...

The article is an interesting perspective, but its conclusions seem suspect to me. The article indicates that Carradine was chosen over Bruce Lee because the white audience wouldn't except an Asian in the lead role. But Bruce Lee in that exact same time frame was incredibly successful in the movies. This suggests that the problem was not with the white audience,(the majority of whites), but some small group of people who were unwilling to risk their money on Lee's acceptance.

Steven Barnes said...

Sorry, Marty. I know you want to believe this, but:
1) Movies require a fraction of the audience a television show requires. A small "cult" audience can make a movie successful where a television show would bomb with the same numbers.
2) I fail to see how Hollywood can be blamed for supporting every Liberal cause, marching with Dr. King, overwhelmingly supporting Obama...but simultaneously harboring more racism than the average American. Artists have always been notorious for having a higher than average percentage of minorities in their friendship and professional circles.
3) We generally accept that familiarity (how many of group X you know, work with, live with or near, etc.) is a road to understanding, friendship, and comfort. Hollywood is in the midst of one of the most diverse areas of the country, and you want to believe that they are more racist than someone in Iowa or Utah.
4) I've met people in Hollywood, and across the country. And worked with them, and partied with them, and known them for all my life. They are NOT "more racist" than the average white people across the country.
I'm not sure why it is so important for you to think this, other than the fact that if you look at the success of various movies and television shows, it absolutely demonstrates why minorities have had a difficult time moving into the mainstream. All of my theories about this stuff have to do with fairly universal human traits, while you seem to take comfort in believing that "those people" (Liberal Hollywood types) are unusually racist--despite having more friends, lovers, co-workers, neighbors, bosses, and people on speed-dial who are non-white. I'm afraid that you have a huge, huge blind spot. This simply isn't logical. I'm not saying the problem is with whites. I'm saying the problem is with human beings, and that this iteration of the problem deals with the lopsided population statistics. When other groups are in the majority, the minority populations suffer as well. For what you think to be true, whites would actually have to be unusually enlightened, a position I certainly do not hold. Do you?

Marty S said...

Steve: I didn't say that Hollywood is more racist than the rest of America. The tone of the story suggests quite the opposite. What I said was that those creating the show made a financially driven choice based upon their expectation that the white audience would not accept an Asian lead.

Christian H. said...

I guess the question is, "is it a chicken or the egg thing?"

Meaning was it an attempt by Hollywood to appeal to their own thoughts or to the noted desires of the audience?

I think the greater issue is though why no one puts their money where their mouth is. If you really believe you'll put up. But that's on the side of the minority group.

I believe a good universal theme can work with any English speaking American. When we use the "accents" it alienate non-members of the group, of whom whites are the majority - in both direction and population.

Of course that begs the question, what is American culture? I'd say it's PROPER ENGLISH SPEECH and that's it.

Art forms, social mores, etc came from all cultures and racial groups. The one thing we have in common is language.

I saw an interesting segment on CNN yesterday where a rape suspect was beaten by a group of men in Philadelphia. When it started I noted an attempted "accent" but as the interview went on the man - working class black - began to adjust his speech and it seemed more "thoughtful."

That's an advantage of a "forced" requirement of professional speech, demeanor and dress.

I often find it difficult to deal with people with thick accents. If you look at even movies with English or or European accents, you get the same "caricatures" as with minorities in America. I guess as a National English Honor Society recipient several years running I may be jaded as to use of vocabulary and diction, but it would go a long way to enabling a common ground AND goal for disparates faiths, cultures and races.

As an aside I saw an ad on a bus yesterday that said


Steve Perry said...

Actually, when Kung Fu was being case, Bruce Lee wasn't incredibly successful as an actor. He had done the role of Kato, in The Green Hornet, that was pretty much it. Depending on whose story you believe, Lee had a hand in the idea of Kung Fu and it wouldn't have been much of a stretch for him to play the role.

Carradine got the part because he could dance, and could pass as half-Chinese, at least in the minds of the producers.

I saw a special recently -- PBS? -- on Chinese actors in American cinema, which was the first place I'd heard the term "yellowface." Great documentary -- during WWII, they had Chinese playing Japanese, but no lead roles for "Orientals" in American movies. (In the Charlie Chan movies, the supporting actors -- Numbered Sons and Honorable Spouse and Daugthers were Chinese. Most of those young men went on to play Shaolin monks in the Kung Fu TV series decades later ...)

And, of course, there were all those Japanese bundled off to internment camps on the west coast during WWII. Not so the German-Americans, nor the Italian-Americans. Wonder what that was?

Couldn't be ... racism, could it?

AF1 said...

The sad thing is Carradine wasn't much of a martial artist.

How great would Bruce have been as Kwai Chang?

Anonymous said...

I'd assumed the reason we no longer saw Fu Manchu in movies was because he was a "yellow peril" character and that we rightly look on those a little dubiously now. Not as obviously a racial charicature as the Yellow Claw - who looks like an alien to modern eyes - but still suspect.

Possibly the most absurd example of 'yellowface' on film was John Wayne as Ghengis Khan in 'The Conquror' (1956).

- Rob Hansen

Steven Barnes said...

O.K. Marty, if I misunderstood, I apologize. Absolutely, it was a small group of people who weren't willing to risk their (jobs, not their money--it ain't their money) that America wouldn't accept an Asian as a hero. And there is a track record of failed television shows and movies to indicate that they are right. It isn't that no one has tried. It's that no one has succeeded.
Regarding Carradine: no, he was never much of a martial artist (Chuck Norris once said that Carradine was to martial arts what he, Norris, was to acting). But interestingly enough, James Coburn, who was a friend of Lee and pallbearer at his funeral, discouraged Lee from getting into television--he felt TV would have used Bruce's uniqueness up in a couple of seasons, and then spit him out. Still, Lee wanted the role.

Anonymous said...


I agree to a certain degree. Yes, Hollywood is notoriously liberal, as most creatively minded people have a tendency to be, but the money going into certain projects comes from people that are not as liberal or creative. If the artists know that no one would ever risk a certain view point, and they can't ever get it published. I doubt that its the writers and even for the most part directors that hold back the black man getting laid imagery you always point to the lack of. Some yes, but I don't think its rediculous to suggest that a bunch of rich white guys funding and running the studios can't censor the ideas of the artists. Rich white guys after all do represent a majority of the racism and intolerance that brands the current republican party

Anonymous said...

Steve. the tv paradigm is thankfully evolving. With network crap like american idol, any number of talent and dancing shows being all the rage, the real creativity and success is being developed and taking place on cable with niche groups that don't need to be as large. TNT is single handedly saving us from crappy network tv.

Scott said...

"The justification is that he was half-white, so it's O.K. for him to be played by a white guy. Right. I think that the major litmus test for whether you buy that is whether it works out to your racial advantage."

Or your first thought is of Brandon Lee, a half Chinese half white guy who looked like a white guy, and seems like an unbelievably perfect yardstick in this particular case, neh?

Melayu Boleh said...

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