I wanted to thank Kerensa Cardenas of Women In Hollywood for flagging this interview with Lucy Liu in, of all places, Net-A-Porter magazine, which is wonderful in part for Liu’s real talk on race in Hollywood. She brings up two separate issues that I think are equally important to acknowledge in the conversation about how to make Hollywood a place that represents the world more accurately, and that, as a result, tells more kinds of stories.
First, Liu points out from her own experience that there are cultural barriers that discourage people from certain backgrounds from going into the entertainment industry in the first place:
Growing up in the bustling New York borough of Queens, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she admits to being frustrated by her parents’ initial lack of support. They were highly educated, forced to do menial jobs in their new country. Her parents struggled, she explains, and they didn’t want the same for her. “After their struggle, they just really wanted to see me struggle in a different way, in a more obvious way, maybe something they could understand – she’s at college struggling, but then she will be a banker or a doctor. They understood that.”
It’s easy to talk about getting people access to similar opportunities once they decide they want to go into entertainment, but it’s worth acknowledging that people from different backgrounds, or different economic circumstances, may need different kinds of support if they’re going to make movies in the first place. If you have student loan debt, for example, you may not be able to take free internships. And creating stable opportunities for people at the early stages of work in entertainment may make it easier for people in different family situations to give it a go.
And Liu mentions the obvious truth that Hollywood puts actors into lanes, and that one of the ways the industry determines what those lanes will be is to use race or ethnicity:
Liu is proud of her achievements, but admits she gets annoyed when people can’t – or won’t – think of her outside of that “action” box: “I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.” Liu’s wary of playing the racism card, but admits that she had to “push a lot just to get in the room”. “I can’t say that there is no racism – there’s definitely something there that’s not easy, which makes [an acting career] much more difficult.”
It’s notable that either Net-A-Porter or Liu referred to this relatively basic observation, one which is factually grounded in Liu’s filmography, as “playing the race card.” It’s a long-standing canard that Hollywood is a liberal place because so many celebrities are affiliated with Democratic candidates and broadly progressive causes, but one of the clearest boundary markers of the limits of that liberalism is the idea that talking about race or racial inequality might be seen as selfish complaining or invite retaliation. It was striking last summer at the Television Critics Association, for example, to see Lance Reddick carefully but clearly acknowledge that being African-American has obviously shaped the parts available to him, even as many actors are quick to suggest that the industry that employs them is color-blind, all empirical evidence to the contrary. For all that Hollywood likes making products about the crippling effects of racial inequality, when those events are historical or based in a different industry or set of institutions, it’s telling that people who work in entertainment still have to worry that talking about race will get them labeled difficult, demanding, or in some way ungrateful.