In keeping with its concern for cinema’s and society’s underdogs, LAFF presented a series of “Diversity Speaks” discussions to “shine the spotlight on underrepresented voices” at the Kirk “I’m Spartacus!” Douglas Theatre in Culver City, June 17-18. According to LAFF program notes, they included:


Cis in a Trans World: Transgender Visibility. Members of the trans creative community will discuss on-screen cis appropriation in depictions of trans stories, panelists include Candis Cayne (The Magicians), Mari Walker (Swim) and Rachel Crowl (And Then There Was Eve). Moderated by Riley Silverman (Not Safe with Nikki Glaser).”; “In Conversation: Lena Waithe Sits Down with Elvis Mitchell. Lena Waithe sits down with Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell for an intimate off-the-record talk.”; “The Other: Documenting Marginalized Stories. Panelists Sydney Freeland (Deidra & Laney Rob a Train), Valerie Red-Horse Mohl (Mankiller), Amy York Rubin (Boxed In), Xan Aranda (Room 104) and Marvin Lemus (Gente-fied) will shine a light on how these filmmakers and storytellers work within, and around, the current systems to be seen and heard.”; “Reclaiming Gay for Pay: What It Means to be ‘Out’ in Hollywood. Panelists Keiynan Lonsdale (The Flash), Noah Galvin (The Real O’Neals) and Guy Branum (Talk Show the Game Show) question why it remains difficult to come out in Hollywood and the future of storytelling for the LGBTQ+ creative community. The panel will be moderated by Marc Malkin of E!”


Sometimes panels can bore you to tears. But the discussion I covered - Whitewashing: Asian and Asian-American Representation in Film and TV - was anything but. This highly entertaining, insightful conversation provided an Asian take on the “Oscars So White” controversy. The panel was wittily moderated by Taiwan-born comedienne Jenny Yang and included: Leonardo Nam (Westworld), Kelly Hu (The Scorpion King), Kelvin Yu (Master of None), Ally Maki (Geography Club), Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man blog), Bruce Thierry Cheung (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) and Gloria Fan (VP of Current Programming, FOX).


Kelvin Yu lamented that Asians “are never quite sexualized” correctly by Hollywood, where the dominant majority culture of Caucasians run not only the studios, but dominate the number of ticket buyers.


Ally Maki, who has had recurring and featured roles in a number of TV series, including the current television iteration of Dear White People and Wrecked, described herself as a sort of girl-next-door, who grew up in Washington state. A fourth generation Japanese-American, when the 31-year-old first came to Hollywood, “the industry [gave me] a rude awakening” with “its casting by ethnicity.” Maki found that by La La Land standards, she didn’t “fit in either category,” and wasn’t considered to be American or Japanese enough. The Seattle-born and raised actress wanted to play “a girl who is just a girl - that’s what resonated with me.” Instead, Maki was typecast to play either “the nerd in the corner or the girl with the accent.”


Born in Argentina to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Sydney, Australia, Leonardo Nam - who spoke with an Aussie accent - echoed the concern of fitting in to preconceived notions as to what an Asian is and how he/she should behave.


A glamorous looking, stiletto-heeled Kelly Hu, who said she was a bit late for the panel because she’d flown in from Kazakhstan to participate in it, reflected: “With 30 years of experience [in show business], we took whatever we could get. It was not like we had a choice. We couldn’t fight for diversity” when the Hawaii-born mixed race Hu started acting in 1987 on the sitcom Growing Pains.


Yang, who kept the panel moving along, pithily summed up the dilemma minorities confronted in Hollywood vis-à-vis majority whites as: “I’m going to tell you who you are.” She also added that when a Margaret Cho or FOB go on the air Asians have “rep sweats” about how they’d be represented - or misrepresented.


On the other hand, the standup comic amusingly mused about, “Our beautiful white liberal friends who get more offended by something on our behalf than we do.” Yet Yang was happy to take credit for criticism of “whitewashed” movies such as the remake of the 1995 Japanese film Ghost in the Shell - remade in 2017 with the white Scarlett Johansson cast as the lead - when they bomb at the box office.


Kelvin Yu argued that in order to improve the quantity and quality of onscreen representations of Asians and Asian-Americans in the North America market, “The industry is a business - we need to vote with our dollars.” With the increase in immigrants from Asia and U.S.-born people of Asian ancestry, plus the export of Hollywood products overseas to Asian theaters, the box office clout of viewers of Asian background is becoming an increasingly important factor for big and little screen productions.


There was a general consensus among panelists that things, indeed, were improving. Yet, surprisingly, China was criticized for “not caring about Asian-Americans.” The recent Chinese production of The Great Wall was blasted for putting Yankee Doodle Dandy Matt Damon in the lead (it should have also been excoriated for being a terrible flick). Ever the wag, Yang quipped she “wants to give diversity workshops to China’s producers.” It seems that even in the People’s Republic love of the green dominates concern about the “yellow.”