Thursday, March 09, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Slanted Screen: Personal Resonances

I am a fair-skinned Chicano male with Asiatic features. Or, to the point, others think I have Asiatic features; I don't. Admittedly, I have the epicanthic fold—common among many Latinos—that backtracks us across the Bering Straits to Mongolian antepesados. It's something I'm proud of from a shamanic aesthetic even as it is misidentified and, in some instances, mismaligned. Where The Slanted Screen resonated personally was precisely where it delineated the prejudices aimed against Asian-American men and the subsequent stereotypes, because these were the prejudices aimed against me and the stereotypes foisted upon me even though I was not Asian-American.

My brother Larry and I were as different as night and day. He was darker for one thing and, back in the 60s, at the height of his activism when he was a member of the Southern Idaho Migrant's Council, he once took me to task for having no comprehension of what it was like to be a dark Mexican-American in a predominantly white, Mormon community. He accused me of having it easy because I was fair-skinned, because I could "pass", whereas he had battled prejudice throughout his youth to the present day. I angered and without mincing words responded, "Larry, I don't think you have any comprehension of how many people are prejudiced against the Chinese!" I remember my brother staring at me wide-eyed, blinking, and then suddenly laughing to high heaven, hugging me in the process. Though it had not been an accurate prejudice, he finally understood that I had been fighting the same battle alongside him.

Watching The Slanted Screen conjured up conflicted memories for me. I particularly appreciated the profile of Sessue Hayakawa, who no less than a couple of weeks previously I had first seen in clips from DeMille's The Cheat included in a documentary The Love Goddesses. I found Hayakawa handsome and charismatic and I was mesmerized by his on-screen presence. The Slanted Screen made mention that his inroad into the film industry was advantageously timed before World War II when attitudes towards Asian-Americans reconfigured and solidified. And it also made mention that, in his theatrical career, Hayakawa played Japanese, Chinese, and Latino roles. That fascinated me!! He was the quintessential ethnic other. And in most cases, the villainous other.

As a fledgling actor, so was I. In retrospect it occurs to me that I have had the unique experience of acting in "yellowface" and that dyadic pride and shame permeate those experiences to this day. My first community theater role was as Ito, the houseboy in Mame. I look back at that performance in embarrassment, directed as I was into shrill silly stereotype. But I was young, ambitious, and fresh to the confusions of the world as they say, and accepted the role and the directorship without protest. Some years later I was asked to play the role of the King of Siam in a community production of The King and I. Other than for not being bald, I looked the part, or so I was told. Rather than question the reality of a Chicano playing an Asian, I expressed concern over having to shave my head or, for that matter, having to learn how to whistle. As the years shifted I wasn't asked to play "yellowface" again but was repeatedly typecast as a villain, again because I looked the part. I hadn't discerned yet that it was my chameleonic ethnicity that suggested villainy. But I grew tired of playing the bad guy and gave up acting.

A few years back I was called out of retirement by a director friend who was working with a new script, The Nan Jing Race. The script called for two Chinese actors and one Japanese-American. I need a favor from you, my friend asked me, I want you to play the Japanese-American. I was stunned, and hesitant, because by then I had suffered my identity politics and did not want to bruise sensibilities. This is a role that should be going to an Asian-American, I chastised. And there have been audition calls, my friend countered, and no Asian-American actors have tried out for this role and I need to cast and get this production going. Will you help? So begrudgingly, I reviewed the script, grimaced when I discovered the Japanese-American was the bad guy, and placed one more criteria before my friend. I want to talk to the Chinese playwright and the two Chinese-Americans you've cast in the other roles before I consider this role, I demanded. So he arranged the meeting.

Would you be offended if I tackle this role, I asked them. I know I can play it, I assured them, I certainly identify with it; but, I won't do it if it offends you that a non-Asian actor claims the role. The role was of a Japanese-American businessman in China who, heedless of the historical atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese, disclaims affiliation with the Japanese and argues for his essentially American character. It was a story of someone caught between identities, something I knew by heart.

The playwright, anxious for a West Coast premiere of the piece, felt I looked and could act the part. The two Chinese actors were starving for a chance to be in a vehicle that would allow them a chance to play a real role and not a stereotypical one. If I would not accept the role, the project would have to be scrapped. They begged me to accept it.

In retrospect I can't say it was one of my best performances. Probably more because I was having issues with once more playing the villain than anything else. But during the rehearsal process the opportunity I had to learn from my two young Asian-American scriptmates, hearing their career histories, their concerns, proved enlightening. In all truthfulness, I hope I am never asked to play "yellowface" again but, considering that I have, I retain a sense of ethnic pride, even if it is not technically my own.

Watching The Slanted Screen brought into focus what is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of prejudice. When a shadow is cast upon you that you have to fight off, that you have to negate, it takes away from the very real work of reconciling your own authentic shadow, which unattended, can cause real problems. The Slanted Screen made clear to me how representations of Asian-American masculinity on the screen have been desexualized and criminalized and that I have been fighting against these misguided prejudices my entire adult life. I empathize with the situation from a purely personal space. And am grateful to Jeff Adachi for the healing he has brought me through his articulate focus.


Brian Darr said...

Thanks for sharing this with your readers. I hope I can see the film myself somehow at some point.

Check out Hayakawa playing a heroic Egyptian character in 1920's the Arabian Knight if you can track it down sometime.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for the tip, Brian, I'll try to find that one. As for "Slanted Screen", you might be able to secure a screener tape from Seema if you turn it around quick enough. Otherwise, another screening has been added at 10:15 on Tuesday, the 21st.

Michael Guillen said...

My thanks to Dave Hudson for linking this post in to the Greencine Daily.