Thursday, July 13, 2017

Aladdin and the Minority Report in Hollywood

Aladdin’s my favourite traditional Disney movie of all-time. Not only are its songs and characters great, but its rags-to-riches story resonates strongly for a guy who’s struggled with adversity for 27 years. On top of that, it remains my favourite movie with Robin Williams, a talent I either loved or hated as an actor depending on the role. Even now, as a full-grown adult, I find myself humming and/or singing some of the movie’s numbers aloud, much to the awkwardness of those around me.

I mention this because Aladdin’s receiving a live-action remake soon, courtesy of Disney themselves. On one hand, this is sensible given the road they’ve taken lately with remakes, and I’ve even enjoyed a few of them. On the other hand, I can’t help but be worried that this’ll end up being another Beauty and the Beast, an unnecessary remake that tries so hard to recreate the feel of a classic that its attempts at differentiation and updating will come off as forced. And given how Aladdin, for all of its strengths, is extremely racist in its depiction of Arab culture, well…that’s a whole can of worms I'd rather not open.

Anyway, the production of this remake has been one head-scratching decision after another. For one, the movie’s being directed by Guy Ritchie. (Y’know, that director that made it big with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, followed his success with Snatch and then struggled with staying relevant after that?) The movie’s also hit a series of “snags”, particularly with casting. Take most-recently, in which Disney stated that they were struggling to find minority actors and actress. To quote The Hollywood Reporter:
“But finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult — especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent (the animated film is set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah). The original casting call specified that production was slated to begin by July, but the search has dragged on, with Disney and Ritchie having to go back to the drawing board multiple times.”
I’d like to tackle the nonsense that is this article’s headline. “'Aladdin': Disney Struggles to Find Stars for Its Live-Action Movie” is clickbait meant to shock people and give off the impression that this is a bad idea from the get-go (which it is, but that’s for another day.) Saying that you're “struggling to find stars” for your movie doesn’t exude confidence in your product, but in the context of Aladdin it also feels somewhat of a back-handed insult. Why? Because, as someone in my Twitter Feed put it, if Hollywood has no trouble finding Arabs to play terrorists, then why not heroes too?

This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Hollywood filmmaking, by the way. Storytelling in the West generally has a spotty track-record with minorities. I think the most-blatant offender is superhero comics, where minority characters were either written as afterthoughts, or racist stereotypes, for the longest time, and even now continue to get the shaft in some shape or form. If you want proof, The Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s biggest foes, is a Chinese warlock who conjures up voodoo and speaks in a funny voice. You don’t need to be Asian to explain why that’s racist.

So yeah, minorities don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to storytelling. Which is a shame, as there are plenty of worthwhile stories to tell about cultures that aren’t Euro-centric. The best example off-hand is The Kite Runner. The book, written by Khaled Hosseini, documents the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan through the eyes of a member of the Afghan royal family. It’s not only an interesting work of storytelling, but it’s the kind of storytelling you don’t see often in the West.

Which leads me back to that quote. Notice the phrasing? “[F]inding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult — especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent…”. Why is this so difficult? Why does Hollywood not do scouting in other parts of the world? Why not travel to Bollywood, home of the largest, non-Hollywood entertainment industry in Asia? Who’s to say you can’t find English-speakers there with great singing voices? What gives?!

I can’t help calling baloney on this idea that “finding minority talent is hard!” I work part-time as a courier during the week, and guess what? Many of my co-workers are of minority descent. I’m not even trying to look for non-white individuals, they happen to work there. If that’s the case, then why's it so hard for an industry with more connections than me to do the same?

See, Hollywood never seems to have this sort of trouble with white actors and actresses! And don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of talented actors and actresses who are white. They’d have to be to get where they are now. But for every white success story, there are at least a dozen talents that are black, Asian, Latino or Arab, to name a few, that are stuck waiting tables or playing in music clubs while they wait for their next gig as an extra. If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is!

And it’s a huge part of the Hollywood system, such that it’s created a vicious circle-jerk of “we can’t find minorities because X” or “no one wants a minority in our film because Y” cop-out answers. I call them cop-out answers because, as films like Get Out have clearly demonstrated, you can, in fact, make a movie starring a non-white lead and have it generate mass-revenue at the box office. We live in a globalized world where Asian audiences are huge money-makers, so not capitalizing on that with proper representation is lazy.

You know what I think the issue is? I think racism is so normalized in the West that it’s hard to fully-appreciate when something’s actually racist. We see it in how the US is currently being run, but most racism is invisible to those unaffected by it. And in the case of those who are affected by it, it's internalized to the point where it feels “deserved”. And Hollywood’s no different, as much as the internet may use “SJW propaganda” and “PC culture” as slurs.

I get it: diversity takes effort, and Hollywood’s lazy; after all, they’re clearly out of ideas, or else Disney wouldn’t be remaking Aladdin. But that doesn’t mean that this excuse of “finding good minority talent is hard” isn’t a bad one, or else I’d let it slide. It’s merely a shame that Hollywood continues to not use their money and resources to do proper scouting and talent searching instead of dipping into the pool of familiarity, or I’d be interested in what this remake of Aladdin had to offer.

Also, Guy Ritchie? Really, you’re using him?!

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