Bruce Lee wasn't the only one Hollywood let down with its whitewashing legacy of 'yellowface'
The practice started way back in the 18th CE but continued until 2017, and hopefully, with 'Warrior' coming in this April, the 'yellowface' legacy will finally end
Hollywood's caricature of anything that is not white has been its most downgraded aspect, and its tendency to not allow colored actors take the central stage in movies or series has been its biggest setback. Several times, Hollywood had basically practiced "yellowface" where a white actor was made to wear a yellow mask in order to represent an Asian character. One of the biggest examples can be actor Mickey Rooney's portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi, a Japanese landlord, in the 1961 film 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Not only was it degrading on every aspect, Yunioshi's character actually belongs to a legacy of such characters who represented other races (but not the whites) as a mere laughing stock in the story.
This was part of the trend where Hollywood was unable to picture an Asian leading a cast in a movie or a series, and this was the main reason why they were unable to accept Bruce Lee's script almost 50 years ago. In 1971, Lee had approached Warner Bros. for a series called 'The Warrior', where he would have acted as the lead and narrated the story of a martial arts warrior who had crossed the sea and immigrated to the Old West. Warner Bros. rejected the idea on the basis that they did not feel secure enough about spending on a series which would not have a white actor as the lead. However, what happened next proves that it was just a blank excuse they had made at the time.
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Warner Bros. only a year later aired a series called 'Kung Fu', which revolved around the exact premise of Lee's idea but whitewashed the lead character with David Carradine playing the role of the Asian. Just as Lee's story went, 'Kung Fu' followed a Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine, as he traveled through the American Old West looking for his half-brother, Danny Caine. As he travels across the land, all he has to help him is his spiritual training and his skill with martial arts. The outrage against 'Kung Fu' was massive, but quite expectedly, Warner Bros. completely denied being influenced by Lee's idea. However, this was certainly not the first time that actors put on a "yellowface" to represent Asian characters.
The practice is shamefully an old one. However, it cannot be entirely blamed upon the subjective decisions made by the studios or the filmmakers, but rather on the Hays Code which came to power as early as 1931. Under its many guidelines, it also stated, "topics considered 'perverse' could not be discussed or depicted in any way. Such topics included — but were not limited to — homosexuality, miscegenation (interracial relationships), bestiality, and venereal diseases." This meant that if one of the actors was white then the other had to be white, too, and none other Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, was the worst affected by it. She was rejected as female lead in 'The Good Earth' since the male lead was Paul Muni.
However, the situation was complicated since the Code demanded the "inherent dignity of foreign peoples", and that their culture should not be mocked at, but all of that was mere fairy tale considering the tension between the East and the West during World War II. As the "yellowface" phenomena continued, it became hard to argue against the creators' claims that a white lead would always bring in more money, since people in that era had already developed a strong sense of discrimination. Even when Warner Oland was made to play a Chinese man in the 'Charlie Chan' movies on the '30s, the box office had sold tickets in a blink of an eye, making it even more difficult to contradict the idea of not letting actors represent their own culture.
It continued to the point where even Japanese manga series began to be whitewashed, and as we know, it happened with Masamune Shirow's famous seinen manga series, 'Ghost in a Shell'. It saw Scarlett Johansson take center stage as Major Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi, while other actors such as Takeshi Kitano, Rila Fukushima, and Kaori Momoi were made to take up supporting roles. Hence, it can be stated that Bruce Lee wasn't the only one, but then again Hollywood managed to even make a joke of this legendary actor whose philosophy the industry was unable to understand. In fact, he wasn't even allowed to remain the lead in his own story for too long.
We all remember the terribly hilarious biopic 'Birth of a Dragon' which saw a rather caricatured Bruce Lee being played by a pretty naively talented actor, Philip Ng, who after a brief presence on screen was soon kicked to the side by his apparent white sidekick Steve McKee, who learns kung fu and romances a Chinese woman.
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Fortunately, it seems that with Cinemax's 'Warrior', all of that is coming to an end. Lee's daughter Shannon had stated, "There have been projects out there involving my father but they’ve lacked a complete understanding of his philosophies and artistry."
She added, "They haven’t captured the essence of his beliefs in martial arts or storytelling. The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material." Hence, 'Warrior'. The show premieres on Cinemax on April 5, and it has a leading Asian cast who tell the story about the untold history of Chinatown.