Early Hollywood used to be very racist in dealing with minorities. With a little makeup, white actors played minorities’ roles. Filmmakers typecasted blacks in submissive roles as servants, maids and laborers. Indians were always cast as “savages”. Latinos played gardeners, handyworkers or beggars. Asians suffered from worse stereotypes. All Asians were cast as Japanese soldiers, railroad workers or prostitutes.
One Asian actor made Hollywood change their approach. Bruce Lee, the late martial arts expert, brought validity and class in his films. The Last Dragon became a cult classic and sparked a movement in kung fu-inspired movies. He retired from acting as a revered legend. His son, Brandon, later starred in a remake of The Crow. Unfortunately, he committed suicide soon after the project’s completion.
Television assisted in bringing more positive attention to Asian actors. Walker, Texas Ranger was one of the 1990’s more popular dramas. Nia Peeples, an actress with black and Asian decent, played a leading role as an investigator. Chuck Norris, another martial arts expert, helped cast Asian actors in more respectable roles.
One of Hollywood’s biggest box-office smashes came from a diminutive, Chinese actress. The 5’4″ Zhang Ziyi starred in Crouching Tiger in 2002. It was an action film entirely made of subtitles and spoken in Japanese. The success won it Best Foreign Film at the SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) Awards. She later showcased her talents in Rush Hour 2 (2003) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2006).
Ken Watanabe, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have become three of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. The Last Samurai, which Watanabe played opposite to Tom Cruise, was one of 2004’s biggest movie successes. He also acted in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning film, The Flags of Iwo Jima.
From 1993’s Rumble in the Jungle, Chan has acted in dozens of action films. He and Chris Tucker made the Rush Hour trilogy (2000-2007) famous. The Drunken Master, Shanghai Knights (with Owen Wilson) and The Tuxedo (with Jennifer Love Hewitt) were commercially successful.
Jet Li was famous playing Aliayah’s love interest in Romeo Must Die. The next year, he starred in the Kiss of Death. Afterwards, he and DMX lit up the screen with Cradle to the Grave. This summer, he acted War. Other movies Li starred in were Lethal Weapon 4 and The One. All three actors played detectives, military generals, secret agents, killers and such. Their contributions expanded roles for Asian actors and actresses in Hollywood’s coming years. Through consistent effort and patience, future roles won’t be determined on race or ethnicity, but the ability to play those roles.