By Ed Diokno
Views from the Edge
It’s award season for the entertainment industry and once again, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have mostly been overlooked for the best known awards for the Oscars, Emmy’s and Tony’s.
Hence, the Anna Awards returns for its third installment. The awards below are named after Anna May Wong, a pioneer Asian American actress who – even back then in the start of the motion picture industry – was conscious of the stereotypes Hollywood was perpetuating with its portrayal of Asian men and women and turned down roles that would reinforce those stereotypes.
Here’s the story of Wong, the award’s namesake.
The First Asian American Movie Star
This is the third year of the awards given to the performances on stage, the silver screen and on television. The categories are whimsical ones that I just made up which I get to do since I’m judge, jury and the majority vote in determining who is deserving based on their performance in 2016.
Drumroll, please …
Best Asian American motion picture
For this category, we had to stretch a bit because so few movies prominently feature AAPI characters. Even though they were not in the lead, three Asian/American actors formed the core rebel team in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen and Riz Ahmed had key roles in the sci-fi storyline started by George Lucas. Outside of the fact they formed the majority of the rebel team — they were were gay, bad ass and non-stereotypical. Although they were not the lead actors, they managed to lend unusual depth and conflict to their characters that we rarely see in these space swashbucklers. Rounding out the team of five was the lead character Jyn Ersois (British actress Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Latino actor Diego Luna). A lesson to Hollywood: The fact there wasn’t a white male among them did not hurt the box-office appeal as audiences flocked to the theaters to watch the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise.
Taika Waititi is a Maori whose offbeat sense of humor is well-known in his native New Zealand. He used that sense of humor with an overlay of poignancy to make a small film about human beings and relationships, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It is a movie that wasn’t widely seen but it should be seen by any minority director who doesn’t want to slip into the basket full of ethnic stereotypes. His next film moves him from the small human drama category into the superhero realm of big budgets and big action. He’ll direct Thor: Ranarok.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Waititi’s next film)
Dev Patel in the motion picture Lion. Dev was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes, which he didn’t win because of the super-strong competition and he faces the same hurdles for Best Supporting Actor in the Academy Awards. I wondered about those nominations because anyone seeing the movie can clearly see that Patel was the main actor and if we were to get strict with the rules, he should have been entered in the Best Actor category. The studio, seeing the competition in that category, thought he stood a better chance (albeit, a slim one) in the supporting actor category.
Lucy Liu in the TV series Elementary. She plays a smart, sassy and deep Dr. Watson to the erratic Sherlock Holmes played by Johnny Lee Hammer. Liu could have just been just another sidekick, but her Watson holds her own against Holmes and the long-running show gives Liu and the show’s writers the time to portray a character with a depth rarely given to any character played by an Asian.
Best Breakout Performance
2016 was quite a year for Riz Ahmed with roles on TV and movies it seemed that the British actor was everywhere. But it was his role in The Night Of, where he starts out as a frightened victimized student who is transformed into a tough, prison-hardened tattooed character. For his performance, he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award and may still get an Emmy nod for making us believe in his character as a student and as an ex-con.
Bad-ass Woman of the Year
Bad-ass Man of the Year
You would have to come up with something really spectacular to give this to anybody but Daniel Wu for his portrayal of martial artist Sunny in Into the Badlands. The Berkeley-born actor made his fame in Asia and came back to this action drama that takes place in a future dystopian America where guns don’t work so inhabitants have to resort to various forms of martial arts, swords and fisticuffs.
Auli’i Cravalho, for her voice-over portrayal of Moana in the animated musical feature of the same name. We might never have seen her in person in the movie, but despite that, she gave a life and energy to the lead character who, in fact, did look a little like the Hawaiian-born actress. Look for her to sing the Oscar-nominated title song “How Far I’ll Go,” written by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, during the Academy Awards.
Best Stage Performance
This was a tough one. There were some very good performances by a number of artists on stage this year but if I had to narrow it to just one, … I can’t … this will have to be another tie for the duet of Darren Criss and Lena Hall for their roles in Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical traveling show. Both of the Asian American performers received rave reviews for the lead roles in that musical about a transexual glam rocker. While Criss played the lead role most of the time, Hall had the next most important male role of Itzak, and at times, took over Criss’ role during his days off. Honorable Mentions go to Daniel Dae Kim in the King and I, Ali Ewoldt in Phantom of the Opera and Philiippa Soo in Hamilton.
Is She, or Isn’t She?
This award goes to the actor who no one would have guessed was AAPI. This year’s award goes to Sharon Leal, who at first glance one would perceive to be African American, but, it turns out, she is half Filipino. She loves her Filipino food, adobo and dinaguan, cooked by her mother. Unfortunately, her role on the CW’s Supergirl is that of a Martian (Filipinos from Mars?) so she won’t be able to draw on her ethnic heritage for her character.
TV show missing an Asian cast member
ABC’s long-running Grey’s Anatomy hasn’t been the same since Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang left the cast. Not only did a favorite character leave a void, any urban hospital in America always has a strong presence of Asian staff as med-techs, nurses and doctors. The show is set in Seattle with a large AAPI population but you wouldn’t know that watching the show. Produced by Shonda Rhimes, who has been outspoken about diversity in casting, should have an Asian character in a recurring role beyond the masked surgical nurse in the operating room.
Best Musical Performance in the Super Bowl
Well, since there is only one Super Bowl per year, it’s pretty obvious the award for 2016 goes, hands down, to Bruno Mars for his performance when he and his dancers faced off with Beyonce and her Formation army of women. Mars more than held his own as the trio belted out Mars’ hit “Uptown Funk.” The dance-off sequence between Mars’ and Beyonce’s dancers was a hair-raising thriller, perhaps equaling the gym sequence between the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story.
Best Stereotype Buster
Conrad Ricamora as Oliver Hampton in How To Get Away With Murder. Well, he is a computer expert, but that’s not the stereotype we’re talking about. Ricamora recently won the Visibility Award for his portrayal of a gay character. Oliver is an interesting and multi-dimensional LGBTQ person of color — a great role for the actor but also great visibility for the Asian American and LGBTQ communities. “I will say that it’s a little ironic to be getting the Visibility Award because so much of growing up as a kid was spent trying to be invisible,” said Ricamora. “It was rough, not only being gay, but having the colored skin that I have. I was terrified that someone would see me as gay and I was also terrified that I would see myself for what I naturally was.”
Best Farewell Performance
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Glenn Rhee as played in TV’s The Walking Dead. Glenn’s brutal demise at the hands of Negan and his baseball bat Lucille, was one of the most shocking and dreadful end to one of television’s best Asian American characters. Through seven seasons, Yeun was able to transform Glenn from the pizza-delivery guy to a heroic zombie killer without ever resorting to anything that hinted at the Asian male stereotype. The character of Glenn was perhaps the best nuanced, AAPI characters television has ever presented.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. You can show your support by liking our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/asamnews, following us on Twitter, sharing our stories, interning or joining our staff.