April 9, 2008

The Real Genius Behind "21"


Over the weekend Justin and I watched "21," which we both found entertaining and worth our $7.50. (Movie tickets here in Fayetteville are still relatively cheap.) The film, which is loosely based on a true story, follows an MIT undergrad named Ben who stumbles into a secret blackjack club run by one of his professors.

Due to his uncanny ability at math, Ben wins hundreds of thousands of dollars during the team's weekend jaunts to Las Vegas. Ben keeps telling himself that he will use the money to pay for medical school--but the flasy lights of Vegas quickly get to his head.

I was intrigued by the movie so I started to do some research about the people who inspired this film. Turns out there really was a blackjack club at MIT (it's been around for a long time) and the members of this team made a lot of money by counting cards at the gambling tables.

And then I found something really interesting--the character Ben is based off of an Asian American student named Jeff Ma. Hmmm...Ben is very much a white boy in the movie with his mop of dark brown hair and pale, pale skin. Nope. He definitely isn't Chinese.

So what gives about this blatant racial mix-up? Supposedly, the studio executives decided that "most of the film's actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female." The underlying assumption here is that the movie-making industry doesn't believe an Asian actor can carry a movie like "21." A karate flick? Sure. But a hip #1 boxseller? Probably not.

(Above: Jeff Ma)

A small part of me understands where these Hollywood types are coming from. They feel the need to "whitewash" a movie because most people in America are white. From a business point-of-view, I can kind of see things from their side.

Yet a large part of me is frustrated, sad, and disappointed. Frustrated that Asian actors (and most actors of color) are routinely cut out of the "meatiest" roles in Hollywood. Sad that I don't see more Asian-American actors that go beyond the "nerdy geek" or "Triad mafia" stereotype in films. And disappointed that a movie has to be whitewashed to be viable for success.

Overall "21" is a good film, but it's also a movie that shows how Hollywood isn't so color-blind after all.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! I googled it and found this: http://www-tech.mit.edu/V128/N15/21casting.html

    Is it any wonder that we grew up with lower self esteem for never seeing ourselves represented in the media?

    Now that I am older, I don't care so much about me - I ended up with strong self esteem anyway - but I wonder about the world my future children will grow up in. My future children will be at least 1/2 Asian (my half, the rest depends on who I end up with) and I want them to be proud of their bodies and ancestry.

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