Hollywood: Drop the bleach

john cho twitter campaign william yu intv_00004712
john cho twitter campaign william yu intv_00004712

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    Why is this actor being photoshopped on movie posters?

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Why is this actor being photoshopped on movie posters? 02:58

Story highlights

  • #StarringJohnCho campaign has reignited the debate about the representation of minorities in Hollywood
  • Jeff Yang: Stars don't make Hollywood. Hollywood makes stars

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For many of us, the news that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Motoko Kusanagi -- the Japanese protagonist of the cult-hit animé franchise "Ghost in the Shell" -- was the final straw. Asian roles of any kind of substance are harder to come by than hen's teeth. So for a leading role in a high-profile movie to vanish at the behest of studio execs -- insiders who rationalize their decisions with rueful musings about how there are "no Asian stars" big enough to play Asian characters in major movies -- wasn't just unfortunate. It was outright insulting.

Jeff Yang
After all, Marvel had only just revealed that in its next big cinematic franchise, "Doctor Strange," the major role of the (male and Tibetan) mystic known as the Ancient One would be played by (female and Scottish) Tilda Swinton. And before that, Cameron Crowe had cast impish ingenue Emma Stone in his Hawaii-set rom-com "Aloha" as its Hawaiian-Chinese love interest, "Allison Ng."
    Behind these contemporary acts of Caucasian cross-casting stood the entire extended history of Hollywood's persistent pattern of remaking hit Asian movies with all-white repertories; of retelling Asian history through the lens of marginal or fictional white characters; of slapping prosthetics, squinty expressions and awful accents on white actors like Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney and Luise Rainer, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan, the Chinese protagonist of Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Good Earth."
    In each case, the absence of "Asian stars" with the charisma, brand awareness and box office prowess required to "open" a movie has been cited as the reason for reframing the stories or characters.
    That's why William Yu, a 25-year-old digital strategist from New York, struck a nerve among Asian-American culture hounds when he unveiled a website called #StarringJohnCho, showcasing what movie posters would look like if their white male leads had been replaced by the star of ABC's short-lived and much-lamented "Selfie" and J.J. Abrams's rebooted "Star Trek" movie franchise. Other intrepid Photoshoppers soon joined in as the web discovered the site and hashtag; Cho can now be found framed by the red planet in "The Martian," hoisting Captain America's shield in "The Avengers," looking debonair in a tailored suit as British superspy James Bond in "Spectre," and, in a bit of irony, leading a team of blackjack hustlers in the movie "21," based on a book about real-life Chinese American MIT student Jeff Ma (reimagined by Hollywood as "Ben Campbell," as played by British actor Jim Sturgess).
    I love the site, the hashtag and the sass that fuels it. And unquestionably, Cho is a brilliant and hugely appealing actor who's an asset in everything in which he appears. But the truth is that Cho not only can't be in all of Hollywood's big-budget blockbusters -- he shouldn't be.
    Because for one actor to be dubbed the "go-to" Asian guy (or girl) doesn't solve the problem of the movie industry's persistent myopia and insidious inherent bias. About 15 years ago, I remember speaking at an event where I was seated with a half-dozen Asian-American performers, and commenting that each of them had been named to People magazine's list of the "world's most beautiful people"... holding the title for just one year, before passing it along to the next designated "beautiful Asian-American." We all laughed to stop ourselves from crying.
    The fact is that stars don't make Hollywood. Hollywood makes stars. When a big budget epic or box office hit or critically acclaimed "Oscar bait" movie showcases an unknown actor, he or she is instantly propelled into the spotlight -- and given more and bigger roles to follow. Gender, ethnicity and nation of origin aren't barriers to this process: Look at British actress Daisy Ridley in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Israeli model Gal Gadot in "Batman vs. Superman." Michael B. Jordan in "Fruitvale Station," Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit," Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Heck, look at John Cho, who first broke out as an actor with a memorable turn as the "MILF guy" in the raunchy blockbuster "American Pie," before being cast opposite India- American actor Kal Penn in the unexpectedly successful stoner comedy franchise "Harold & Kumar."
    Because stardom has to start somewhere. How many people remember that, before Scarlett Johansson was one of the world's biggest and most bankable screen icons, she began her career with a tiny supporting role in the hugely unsuccessful second sequel to John Hughes' kiddie comedy franchise, "Home Alone 3"? (I'm sure Johansson hopes the answer is "nobody.")
    So the real message behind #StarringJohnCho isn't really that studios should be casting this John Cho in everything; it's that they should be looking for and giving opportunities to the next one. Drop the bleach and get with it, Hollywood. You have nothing to lose but an extended and embarrassing history of onscreen racism -- and the eyeballs of the 60% of the world that's Asian to gain.