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The most frustrating thing about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is seeing it processed through a lens of whiteness

The soft bigotry of low box-office expectations

Here’s a thought: Maybe the rom-com isn’t dead.

Maybe moviegoers are just sick of watching movies about straight white people getting in their own way when it comes to matters of the heart because we’ve seen just about every conceivable version of this story that exists, plus numerous remakes.

Maybe that’s why Crazy Rich Asians, which took the top spot at the box office with a three-day total of $25.2 million, enjoyed the best opening for a PG-13 rom-com since Think Like a Man in 2012.

I thoroughly enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, and I think it’s the best romantic comedy from a big studio since Bridget Jones’s Diary was released in 2001. Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the best-selling Kevin Kwan novel is splashy, sumptuous and emotionally fulfilling. It’s definitely a charming celebration of the hotness of lactose-intolerant economics professors.

What I have enjoyed far, far less is most of the public discussion of Crazy Rich Asians, in which appreciation for its storytelling and how well it was executed have been almost completely subsumed by the fact that it’s the first film with an all-Asian cast to be released by a major studio since Joy Luck Club in 1993. Which is how we got a slew of headlines proclaiming that Crazy Rich Asians “exceeded expectations” in its performance at the box office. This points to a frustrating issue about how we tend to discuss majority-minority films: Each one is thrust into a position of having to prove it deserved to exist in the first place, in a way that films by and about white people do not.

The response when these films do well falls into predictable ruts:

  1. OMG, this film did gangbusters! Who’da thunk?
  2. This two-hour film, which somehow is charged with representing an entire diaspora, got something wrong. See also: This film isn’t [insert ethnicity here] enough.
  3. The success of this film with a predominantly minority cast has deep significance for all films with minority casts.

Let’s talk about these tropes and why they’re so irritating, even when we’re talking about massive successes such as Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther.

The soft bigotry of low (box-office) expectations

The most frustrating thing about this is that we’ve witnessed repeated exclamations of surprise whenever a film that’s not by and about white people does well at the box office. Five years ago, Linda Holmes of NPR was raising the same issues with the way the box office take for The Best Man Holiday was being discussed. And the same rhetoric was an issue when Think Like a Man won the top slot of its opening weekend in 2012.

How many times do well-executed majority-minority films have to do well for their success to be discussed as a matter of course rather than a surprise? Being forced, again and again, to disprove baseless low expectations doesn’t just reek of condescension, it saps away time and power. Instead of devoting energy to simply making their art, people of color are tasked with justifying their existence on the big screen at all. When prevailing attitudes dictate that films about nonwhite people don’t sell (even in the face of overwhelming data that proves otherwise), those attitudes are used to justify smaller production budgets, shorter production timelines and less money for promotion and advertising. All of that contributes to enormous pay gaps, especially for actresses of color, and more pressure on nonwhite, non-male directors. In a business that is inherently risky, risk gets unfairly and disproportionately associated with anyone who isn’t white or male, which is how Kwan ended up fielding suggestions from producers that he make his protagonist white (thankfully, he stuck to his guns and refused). Feeding into low expectations, even when we’re using ostensibly positive language about how those expectations have been exceeded, perpetuates a premise that was faulty to begin with.

This film isn’t [Asian/black/gay/insert race, ethnicity or other demographic here] enough!

Once a project makes it through the numerous developmental hoops it takes to get made, it instantly becomes emblematic of Hollywood’s scarcity problem when it comes to big projects about nonwhite people.

And if every film about people of color is evaluated through a lens of scarcity, it makes it almost impossible for something to simply exist as a work of joyful frivolity (which is sorta the very definition of romantic comedy). It becomes saddled with all of the politics surrounding it before anyone has even seen it.

Besides all its other responsibilities, a film is now laden with the task of being evaluated through a lens of racial or ethnic essentialism: This movie doesn’t reflect my own experiences as X, so therefore it must not be [black, Asian, Latino, feminist] enough.

When’s the last time you witnessed a deluge of think pieces about how The Proposal or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or Legally Blonde were not sufficiently representative of the entire ethnic makeup and experiences of white people?

Which brings me to the final thorn in my side:

Of course there should be more films about nonwhite people. Why is that conclusion dependent on the financial success of this one film?

No one with sense looks at the success of films such as Taken or La La Land and then deduces that Hollywood needs to make more films about white people. That would be ludicrous. The success or failure of a film does not rest on the race of the cast and director. Unless those folks happen to be nonwhite or non-male.

The New Yorker’s Bizzy Coy recently published a tongue-in-cheek list responding to the news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added a “Best Popular Film” category. They all offer pointed jabs at the lazy ways we tend to talk about film, but these two really stood out:

“Best Interview That Continues to Ask Traditionally Underrepresented People About Issues of Representation in Hollywood Instead of Letting Them Talk About Literally Anything Else” and “Most Popular Film Made by and/or Starring People of Color That Should Be Nominated for Best Picture, But Why Don’t We Just Give It Its Own Special Category Over Here, Isn’t That Nice?”

Maybe, just maybe, we could evaluate the success of films by and about minorities by examining the art itself instead of forcing every nonwhite film to be a referendum on whether another should exist.

Just a suggestion.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.