The new film Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is both a cutting critique of racism in the US and a bonafide blockbuster. In what Peele calls a “social thriller,” a New York City black man named Chris accompanies his painfully white girlfriend Rose home to the burbs. There he meets Rose’s rich liberal parents—who haven’t been informed he’s black. In a refreshing subversion of typical cinematic tropes, the monsters in this story are white people, hiding in plain sight.
Peele’s movie is strikingly original, showcasing the very real fear that many black Americans experience as they navigate white-dominated spaces and relationships with alleged allies. The revelation of what lies beneath the family’s façade prompts audiences to experience the full horror of the fetishization and commodification of the black body. But for all its attention to the violence and microaggressions that characterize the modern black experience, the film has a startling blind spot when it comes to Asian Americans.
The film’s sole Asian character appears at a sinister garden party hosted by Rose’s parents, an odd meet-the-boyfriend event in which wealthy white senior citizens inspect Chris and pepper him with questions that range from uncomfortable to blatantly offensive. (Does he know Tiger Woods?) Apart from the black servants, the only person of color in this bastion of entitlement and wealth is an older Asian man, who, in thickly accented English, asks Chris if he thinks being black is an advantage or a disadvantage in American society. Later, it becomes clear (to the viewers) that the party is effectively a slave auction. The Asian man has no more speaking lines. But in the broad shot of the crowd, he is clearly visible, his face a mask as he bids with the rest of the monsters.
Up until the Asian man’s appearance, I’d been thoroughly enjoying the movie’s precise skewering of white supremacy. Seemingly small details—a cup of tea, a slip of the tongue—turn out to matter a lot later on. But it’s not clear what the unnamed Asian man, listed in the movie’s credits as “Mr. Tanaka,” is meant to represent. We’re given to understand that he is in cahoots with the racist whites. Perhaps, given his accent, he’s meant to remind us that racism isn’t just domestic, it’s a global scourge. But because no further screen time is given to the character, he is essentially just a composite of several stereotypes of Asian men: unassimilable foreigner, rich model minority, sinister and inscrutable villain, neutered asexual (he’s the only unpartnered person at the party).
By making this critique, I’m not attempting to deny the existence of anti-black racism by Asians (and other minorities). But in a social thriller that literally lights a fire under white American racism, the nameless Asian’s few seconds on screen are decidedly odd. If the person’s history, his particular brand of racism, and where he stands within the social hierarchy go unexamined by the film, why throw in an Asian character at all?
Perhaps Mr. Tanaka actually reflects mainstream American culture’s longstanding discomfort with Asian men. This trend can be traced back to the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That film featured Mr. Yunioshi, Holly Golightly’s creepy and also unpartnered Japanese neighbor (cinematic bonus: Yunioshi was played in buck-toothed yellowface by Mickey Rooney). Then there is the beloved 1996 movie Fargo. Amidst a mostly white cast (the film is set in Minnesota), we meet Mike Yanagita, a former high school classmate of the protagonist Marge Gunderson. During their brief scene, the oily Mike tells Marge that his wife has died of cancer; he starts crying—and then uses it as an excuse to snuggle up and hit on her, even though she’s clearly repelled and also enormously pregnant. Mike is later revealed to be a pervy, never-married liar who still lives with his parents—and he has no bearing on the larger plot, a murder investigation.
Then we have the endearingly creepy Long Duk Dong (whose very name is, of course, an Asian joke), from Sixteen Candles (1984). He’s slightly more consequential in the ensemble cast, but accompanied by a treasure trove of stereotypes: thick accent, goofy mannerisms, the sound of the gong announcing his appearance, a girlfriend who’s supposed to emasculate him by being bigger and stronger than he is. That character went on to become a kind of racist playbook for belittling Asian men. Eric Nakamura, a founder of Giant Robot magazine, called it “every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character.” The New Yorker artist Adrian Tomine even produced a comic strip about how much this character negatively affected his life.
These Asian characters all rely upon a specific series of stereotypes about Asian men—perpetual foreigners, inscrutable and so not to be trusted, sexually aberrant. In some ways this reflects Asians’ odd liminal space in society. The “almost white” model minority stereotype denies Asians their own stories while simultaneously engendering resentment from other minority groups who see Asians as bypassing them on the economic ladder. In actuality, this stereotype merely obscures the real issues of systemic racism, which undermines Asian-Americans as well.
In 1992, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “We Koreans Need an Al Sharpton,” lamenting that a rap song calling for violence against Korean grocers was greeted by the music-loving public as perfectly acceptable. But Get Out shows that the model minority stereotype hasn’t gone away.
Rich Asians, like the Tanaka character, certainly exist. But poor Asians also exist; it might surprise people to know that in New York City, the ethnic group with the highest rate of poverty is Asian Americans (pdf).
Moreover, the little we see of Tanaka suggests he is entitled, privileged, and clueless, ignorant of the horrific legacy of violence against blacks in this country. But by putting Asian Americans in a quasi-privileged position, we tend to gloss over racism and violence Asian Americans have faced. Consider the Japanese internment camps. And as Erika Lee, author of The Making of Asian America: A History points out, “the largest citizen-led mass lynching in U.S. history involved Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871″—in which 17 Chinese immigrants were murdered by a crowd of 500.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, Asian bodies are still literally being inhabited by white people. White actors, including Tilda Swinton as the Wise One in Dr. Strange, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, and even John Wayne’s terrible Genghis Kahn, consistently portray Asian characters. Yet, few outside the Asian-American community bother to note this real-life horror, which snuffs out the economic lives of Asian-American actors and deprives Asian-Americans viewers—per-capita, the most frequent moviegoers in the US—of the chance to see ourselves onscreen.
Get Out is a smart movie that succeeds on many levels. But most people go to the movies to learn about the world around them. If what they know about other ethnicities is largely confined to what they see in pop culture, then filmmakers—even those limning social issues—must check for biases that inadvertently appear in their work. Otherwise even smart movies can wind up reinforcing the very stereotypes they set out to critique.