When Loren and Gabriel started drinking Smirnoff Ice in my apartment the other day, I hurled a series of appropriate insults at them: "Smirnoff Ice?! What are you—sorority girls? What next—you want me to get you some peach wine coolers? How 'bout after that—you wanna go to Chevy's and order margaritas?" But I did recognize it as a perfect opportunity to throw on Madea's Family Reunion, Tyler Perry's second movie. We all, of course, laughed hysterically throughout the film. (Me, without the aid of alcohol because that's how I roll).
Watching the movie reignited Gabriel and Loren's repeated insistence that I follow Tyler Perry's career trajectory, cornering the Asian-American market instead of the African-American one. "Thai-Ler Par-Lee!" Loren often declares. "Get it? Get it?!" And in order to drive the point home, he'll write out "Thai-Ler Par-Lee" on a stray piece of paper and shove it in my face.
To evaluate how best to approach the Asian-American market in question, Gabriel researched census data and e-mailed me a percentage breakdown of minorities in the United States. And I was actually shocked at what I saw. I was struck by the low percentage of Asian Americans in this country. Before you roll your eyes, let me explain.
The reasons for my surprise: (1) I haven't looked at that type of data in a very long time; (2) I've lived in California, a state with relatively large Asian populations, for nearly 30 years—San Francisco and Los Angeles in particular; (3) I frequent Thai and other Asian-run restaurants regularly, often with my mother; (4) I'm actively involved in the Asian-American theater community; (5) I currently teach an all-Asian-American playwriting class every week, right down the hall from an all-Asian-American acting class; and (6) after said classes, a group of us eat and talk over Japanese food in Little Tokyo.
So when Gabriel reported to me that only 4.3% of the American population is of Asian descent, it was sort of a rude awakening. I mean, I've always had this number in the back of my mind, and my scripts frequently deal with Asian-Americans' minority status, but I don't actively sit around thinking about how few of "me" there are in this country. So when I'm reminded of a number that small, it bursts my bubble.
I suppose my "naivete" could explain why I'm genuinely floored when I walk into meetings with movie studio executives and they tell me things like,"Yeah, your screenplay doesn't really work with one of the lead characters being Asian; it's better if he's white," and cite no other reason than it's a personal preference of theirs. And those development types will pull out those census numbers to prove that having an Asian-American in a lead role is not financially savvy, unless it's Jackie Chan or Chow Yun-Fat doing bad-ass martial arts moves from beginning to end—but even their stock has gone down considerably over the years. I've always wanted to assert, "The fact that there are even fewer cannibalistic serial killers than Asian Americans didn't stop Hollywood from making five Hannibal Lecter movies!"—but I know I would be greeted by blank stares and cries of "apples and oranges!"
Look, I'm not naive enough to think that casting Asian-Americans as leads in a big-budget movies will pay off at the box office. And I don't have pat solutions to the issue of minority representation in Hollywood. However, I don't have the patience to wait around until the year 2050 when the majority of this country will be non-white for things to change.
Here are a couple things I know: (1) 4.3% is still 15 million people; and (2) Asian-Americans as consumers have spending clout that exceeds $427 billion annually—which, incidentally, is more than entire other countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, Portugal, and Switzerland.
What am I to do with all this information? On inspired days, it's enough to make me want to throw on a wig, a fat suit, and a dress and pretend to be my mother. On normal days, I'll walk away from my Asian-American compatriots in a Little Tokyo parking lot after a Japanese dinner, wave somberly, and say, "Bye. I'm going back to White World."