Asian-Americans Reimagined In Lead Roles Destroys Idea They Don't Belong There

The #SeeAsAmStar campaign asks how this can still be a radical shift.

Asian-Americans have long yearned to see themselves represented in the lead roles of major Hollywood movies. With a little digital wizardry, William Yu is making that happen right now.

Yu, a New York-based digital strategist, has superimposed the faces of popular Asian-American actors onto those of the main characters in scenes from “The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games,” “Ghost In The Shell” and other films. He’s released the clips under the hashtag #SeeAsAmStar, which he launched to coincide with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May.

Through the videos, Yu wants to prove that an Asian-American lead in any kind of movie is not as hard to imagine as Hollywood may think.

“I hope that these videos demystify the notion that Asian American leads are a ‘risk’ or that Asian American movie stars simply don’t exist,” Yu told HuffPost in an email. “The concept of the Asian American lead, in 2018, shouldn’t be a radical idea.”

The digital strategist used “deepfake” technology, a form of artificial intelligence, to bring the faces of Constance Wu, Arden Cho, John Cho and Steven Yuen to big-screen roles. It’s the same technology that Jordan Peele used to create a fake Barack Obama video.

Yu’s work has already won praise, including from Wu and Arden Cho themselves.

While Yu is no stranger to deploying face-swaps in the name of representation ― he reworked movie posters for the viral social media campaign #StarringJohnCho ― he thought videos could take his message a step further.

“While the medium of movie posters was effective,” he said, “I felt that there was still a gap between people being used to the idea of an Asian American lead and seeing it become a reality.”

Research by UCLA shows that in 2016, only about 3 percent of film roles went to Asian actors, while white actors accounted for about 78 percent of roles. Even in recent years, major Hollywood roles that should have been good opportunities for those of Asian descent have gone to white actors.

Emma Stone was cast in the Cameron Crowe movie “Aloha” as a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese character. Scarlett Johansson portrayed Maj. Motoko Kusanagi ― or The Major ― in “Ghost in the Shell,” a film adaptation of a Japanese manga. Lewis Tan, an actual actor of Chinese descent, was passed over for the lead role in Netflix’s “Iron Fist” series, even though the show was filled with undeniably Asian elements. But white actor Finn Jones still got the Danny Rand role.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Yu, who was born in the United States, spent a number of his childhood years in Hong Kong, where seeing an Asian face on screen was the norm, not the exception.

When he moved back to the U.S. at age 12, he said he noticed how the lack of Asian representation in American movies swayed his peers’ perception of people of Asian descent ― particularly since his family settled in an area with a very small Asian-American population. That affected how he and his family were treated.

“All of sudden, there were slights, assumptions, and misunderstandings that I never had to deal with [before],” he recalled. “Outside of my parents, I found it difficult to find mentors and role models that I could relate to and emulate. And as a passionate film nerd, I grew to resent the fact that the stories and characters that I adored never featured a face like my father, my mother, my sister, or mine.”

Yu hopes that his videos can send a lasting message to Hollywood execs. After all, he pointed out, audiences are thirsting for diversity on screen.

A 2017 report by the Creative Artists Agency found that “at every budget level, a cast that is at least 30% non-white outperforms a release that is not, in opening weekend box office.” Another 2017 report, from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, concluded that films with relatively diverse casts bring in the highest average box-office receipts and return on investment. This year, the superhero movie “Black Panther,” which featured a majority black cast, broke several box office records, including the largest February opening weekend, largest winter-season opening weekend and largest Presidents Day weekend opening.

“I certainly hope that those in Hollywood take a look and reevaluate their approaches to what a ‘movie star’ looks like,” Yu said. With audiences more eager for diverse stories than ever, he said, “It’s time to adapt.”

CORRECTION: The 2015 movie “Aloha” was directed by Cameron Crowe, not James Cameron.