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March 28, 2008

21: Playing the Race Cards

The film 21 opens today.  If you've missed the barrage of advertising Sony Pictures has assailed upon us, here's a description from Fandango:

Director Robert Luketic adapts Ben Mezrich's best-seller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions to tell the true-life tale of six genius students who used their brains to beat considerable odds.

True to life?  True that the main character goes to Vegas to count cards with his classmates so that he can make tuition money.  Not true that the protagonist is Caucasian.

The real people profiled in Bringing Down the House are actually Asian American, and when Asian-American actors learned that the story was being made into a movie, they rejoiced.  Finally, they would have the opportunity to play three-dimensional characters and branch out from their fine portrayals of nerds, waiters, kung fu artists, and refugees.  

Studio executives dashed those hopes.  They felt that Caucasian actors would make the film more marketable, despite the fact that the characters' ethnicity was essential to the story.  The book states that the card-counting scheme was successful partly because the students used their ethnicity to their advantage; in the casinos, a young Asian man betting large amounts of money is less conspicuous than a young white man.

And come on, we all know that gambling and M.I.T. have become indispensable parts of Asian-American culture.  Every Asian parent dreams of his or her children going to M.I.T. and takes the $25 bus from Chinatown to Reno to win enough money to send them there.

If you don't believe me, just ask writer/performer Prince Gomolvilas who confesses in the  touring theatre production Jukebox Stories that his college education was financed when his "mother hit the jackpot on a nickel slot machine at the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Vegas."  The quip is part of his biting and hilarious monologue "21 Reasons Why This Movie Already Sucks," in which he lists 21 reasons one should NOT see the film 21.   

Here are a few:

#7: This is not the kind of movie [Jim Sturgess, who is white] should be in. He actually should've been cast as Ray Charles in Ray or as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland or as Frank Lucas, you know, the Denzel Washington character in American Gangster.

#14: People say that I should be happy because the producers, out of an apparent act of charity, did cast two Asian Americans in smaller roles: the Korean dude from Disturbia and some random token hot Asian chick.  But I ask you: Why the hell should I be happy? That's like somebody jerking you off halfway and then leaving.

We shouldn't be surprised by a film studio's lack of cultural sensitivity.  It's not the first time that Hollywood has changed a character's race to make a film more "marketable."  In 1999, George Clooney played the African-American protagonist in Three Kings, and Gomolvilas has plenty of his own experiences:

Remember the time when a certain talent agent wanted to take a look at my script about a little Asian-American boy only if I would consider rewriting the part so that Dakota Fanning could star in it?  

How about that time I was developing a script called Chocolate Buddha at a film studio? The story was about a black guy who hides out in a Buddhist monastery.  And I was shocked that... executives could still look me in the eye and tell me it would be much better if the star of the movie were Caucasian, essentially changing my film into White Chocolate Buddha.

The moral of this story is that if you're lucky enough to be in Los Angeles this weekend, take that $10 you would have spent seeing 21 to catch Gomolvilas with singer/songwriter Brandon Patton in Jukebox Stories: The Case of the Creamy Foam at Genghis Cohen.  (They're also in Boston June 15.)  A mixture of contemporary storytelling, original songs, audience prizes and a different setlist each night, Gomolvilas and Patton present a clever, decidedly non-theatrical theatre piece that combines personal anecdotes with brilliant observations of life's randomness.  

This second installment of Jukebox Stories lets the audience virtually pick out of a hat the pieces the duo will present, like Gomolvilas' true yet bizarre story about how his satirical review of High School Musical garnered thousands of angry letters and death threats from tween girls.  And if you solve the show's murder mystery or demonstrate your prowess at movie score trivia, you win cheesy prizes.  It's a load of fun that will leave you thinking about life and humming Patton's songs on your way home, "We're alive and we chuckle when we fart/Try to be inspired but this is life, not art."

March 28, 2008 12:22 PM | | Comments (1)


Great piece -- but sadly biz-as-usual in an industry that has always made black, Asian-Americans, Native Americans & Hispanics bit players in their own stories.

It's the way Hollywood courts what it perceives to be its "target audience."

Glenn Lovell

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