Amoeblog

Asian-American Cinema Part I - The Silent Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 3, 2009 03:00pm | Post a Comment
The first of a nine part series on Asian-Americans in front of and behind the camera

ASIAN-AMERICANS IN SILENT FILM


In the early days of west coast film production, there were few roles for Asian actors except as unflattering stereotypes or anonymous background work. Nonetheless, a small number pursued careers in front of and behind the camera, intersecting and influencing Hollywood's embryonic phase. Although most worked in near complete obscurity, two -- Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa -- became veritable superstars. They still were virtually unable to find roles to their liking, since most of the lead roles (still usually degrading) went to actors in yellowface, a practice that continued long after blackface became taboo. Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa used their earnings to attempt to improve opportunities for less famous Asians by creating more positive depictions, following black cinema's lead. However, with immigration restricted and laws preventing citizenship and property ownership, even the few rich, famous Americanized Asians faced considerable challenges.




ASIAN-AMERICANS IN THE SILENT FILM ERA

In the silent era, most of the APA-related films were low budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers but they do remain interesting for multiple reasons, including their reflection of changing American attitudes as well as as documents of the efforts of the country's second largest racial minority to break into a system who viewed them as subhuman at worst and as generally as exotic, inscrutable aliens at best.

Yellowface -- Hollywood Chinese

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 18, 2007 09:34am | Post a Comment
Famed Asian-American rights activist Ngoc-Thu Thi Nguyen and I watched this documentary about depictions of Chinese in Hollywood film called ... Hollywood Chinese. I love observing how Hollywood deals with all races and ethnicities. Sometimes it's hilarious and sometimes it's pretty appalling and then there's the rare occasion on which it rings true, which usually catches me by surprise. The development of an Asian-American Cinema has interesting similarities and differences with more often discussed and documented minority film genres like Black Cinema and Gay Cinema, which sprang up to tap into markets Hollywood mostly ignored for decades. In the 1948 case of the U.S. vs Paramount the government ruled against the studios and they were no longer allowed to control the studios, the distribution and the theaters and Hollywood opened up, to a degree, to the minorities which they'd systematically ignored up to that point.

 
Early Gay Films

Race Films

In the Classic Hollywood era, Chinese women (like all Asians) were generally played by white actresses as shy, subservient innocents totally devoted to their white lovers. Chinese men were usually portrayed as cruel, buck-toothed, long-fingernailed mystics who delighted in tormenting the white heroes who'd fallen for their women. Or, they were depicted as simple, asexual, buck-toothed peasants who almost always wear a queue. Either way, it's only the women that are sexualized.

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