Since its premiere at the beginning of the month, Marvel’s latest film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” has sparked conversations on racial and ethnic representation in the film industry.
The movie is the first of its kind in the Marvel Cinematic Universe both led and ensembled by actors of Asian descent. It is the first of Marvel's 25 films to feature an Asian superhero lead — protagonist Shang-Chi, played by actor Simu Liu.
According to Livis Freeman, a teaching assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Marvel’s prominence in the movie industry has made its response to a lack of ethnic representation a point of contention for many.
“I think a hundred percent, there’s a ton of pressure on the producers to get it right, to do well and to accurately represent — especially with a franchise like Marvel,” Freeman said. “These representational opportunities are few and far between. If you don't do it right, then people aren't going to want to put the money in to invest further.”
Historically, Hollywood has both misrepresented and underrepresented people of color.
As early as the 1900s, Hollywood directors produced movies where Asian characters were deliberately portrayed by white actors. For example, Katharine Hepburn, a renowned white actress, starred in the 1944 film “Dragon Seed,” portraying a female Chinese protagonist, Jade Tan.
Freeman said this sort of misrepresentation tends to be harmful for young people from minority groups.
“Being in a minority as a kid, people always say to you, ‘You can be anything you want,’ but it’s like, ‘Well, can I?’" Freeman said. "You haven’t seen anyone break down those barriers. You see Black men being killed by the police way more often than you see a Black superhero. And if you’re seeing all the white guys as the heroes — or even as the villains — you start to wonder where your place is in the world if you can't visualize it in the media.”
Even so, Freeman said he feels the slow roll-out of representational movies such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will be more impactful than a superficial mass release of movies containing ethnically diverse protagonists. He said the best way for the media to make reparations is to apologize and move forward, which is much easier said than done.
To senior Sydney Thai, this type of cultural representation in the media is anything but insignificant.
“The demographics of the country are changing, and instead of trying to wash them out or make them assimilate into the already existing culture, it’s important to showcase what we bring to the table,” Thai said. “During ‘Shang-Chi,’ I was sitting there, looking at the father, played by Tony Leung, and I just started crying because he reminded me of my own dad. I was like, ‘Oh my god, someone who looks like my dad is on American TV.’”
Seeing an actor who looks like her dad wasn’t the only instance of cultural familiarity Thai felt in the movie.
“When they started out the movie speaking Mandarin, I made this very audible noise, like, hand on my chest, everything,” Thai said. “I never thought I would hear so much Mandarin in an American movie. It was so great. I thought I was watching a Chinese drama."
As a Chinese-American, senior Lucia Wang said she felt "Shang-Chi" was one of the few opportunities she has had to see herself reflected on the big screen.
“For a long time, I never could relate to other movies,” Wang said. “I feel like for a lot of East Asian people, myself included, everyone's favorite movie when we were younger was 'Mulan' because she's literally the only Asian lead in an Asian-based movie. Now that there are more films with Asian actors, leads and directors, we don't have to reduce our representation to one movie that we've seen a million times.”
Despite its initial hype, Wang said the announcement of "Shang-Chi" raised concerns about representational accuracy and credibility.
“I think this comes up a lot, and people feel like we need something like this to prove that our ethnic group is capable of acting,” Wang said. “I just think it's nice to see someone who looks like you on a screen, even if it's not going to be the best movie in the world.”
Above all else, Wang said she hopes that Chinese children who watch the film can see themselves on the big screen and be proud of who they are.
“I hope kids who watch it can be happy that they don’t have to hide who they are or be someone else,” Wang said.
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