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Wed, Jun. 10th, 2009, 10:10 pm
Race in Star Trek (part 1)

"It's difficult having to hustle for jobs. Not knowing when the next job is coming in. It's hard. There are not enough roles out there. I try not to get wrapped up in it or I'll get depressed." - John Cho, an American of Korean descent (born in Seoul), on being an Asian-American actor.

Cho plays Hikaru Sulu, a Japanese member of the Enterprise crew, in the recent "rebooted" Star Trek movie.

Race shouldn't matter. James Doohan wasn't actually Scottish. Maybe in the rebooted Trek universe, Sulu's from Japan, but has alternate-universe Korean blood. Or maybe a wizard did it. For all i know, John Cho has Japanese blood (and the question as to whether this would be a good or a bad thing for Star Trek seems inherently wrong-headed). Such a discussion is beside the point (though it does highlight the inanity of "race" as a way to classify people), and please don't mistake this for a fannish whinge at an "incorrect" race for a particular character. I want to make this abundantly clear: John Cho deserves parts; He deserves this part, specifically. I am glad he played Sulu. And if they had given him more screen time, he could have delivered an excellent performance of the character. The lack of screen time would be my main complaint about Sulu, along with other of the less central characters.

So that's not were i'm going with this. I have only love for John-Cho-as-Sulu. I'm speculating about what his choice says about the people who chose him.

This only disturbed me when i wondered about the dynamics behind the casting.

So without beating around the race bush any further, this is my problem: Was there an assumption that an average American movie-goer can't tell the difference between a Korean person and a Japanese person, and therefore, it doesn't matter who you cast - as long as they look Asian-y? It seems likely to me, and maybe this says a lot about my perception of the way white Americans think (i think it says more about the way i think American casting directors and producers think).

Or, on a less race-y topic, was there an assumption that you needed to have a "familiar" face, and there aren't any familiar, young, Japanese-American male actors to fit the part? There is a racial dimension to that, too, but the disturbingness of that possibility lies more in the cynical exploitation of familiar actors that will draw attention for fame's sake. I'm sure there are plenty of young male Japanese-American actors that could have used the career boost (and the money) from this role.

Then there's the comment John Cho made above; it seems to come from this article: http://goldsea.com/Personalities/Choj/choj2.html

Here is the fullest context for the comment i could find:

With a total of about three dozen film and TV jobs to date, John Cho has worked more than most Asian American actors. Still, he sees being an Asian American actor as a chancy life. "It's difficult having to hustle for jobs," he said. "Not knowing when the next job is coming in. It's hard. There are not enough roles out there. I try not to get wrapped up in it or I'll get depressed."

What this highlights is that Asian-American actors are chosen for "Asian" roles; it implies that the default is White, and that a character needs to be specifically Asian in order to compel a casting person to cast an Asian actor.

If these dynamics were at play here, does that imply that Sulu is "specifically Asian" in the casting director's eyes - but not specifically enough to be Japanese?

So what does this mean?

Discuss.

(Edited to add: But see this later post)