A live virtual discussion with Michelle Sugihara, Kenny Tsai, Miranda Kwok, Cooper Andrews and Kabir Akhtar.
"What we watch on our screens impacts the way we think, feel and act. So media is the fastest way to shift culture. And we must change perceptions before we can even hope to change policies, minds and hearts."
So said Michelle Sugihara at the livestreamed Television Academy Foundation event "The Power of TV: Advancing AAPI Representation." As executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, or CAPE, Sugihara understands the importance of changing perceptions of the AAPI (Asian American/Pacific Islander) community, whose members have long faced discrimination in hiring as well as a recent increase in hate and violence.
The need for a shift in attitudes and employment practices was the focus of the event, which was presented July 27 at no charge to the public by the Foundation in partnership with CAPE.
Sugihara moderated the discussion by panelists Kabir Akhtar, ACE, director-editor of such shows as Netflix's Never Have I Ever; actor Cooper Andrews, who plays Jerry on AMC's The Walking Dead; Miranda Kwok, creator–writer–executive producer of Fox's The Cleaning Lady; and Kenny Tsai, senior vice-president, current programming, Universal Content Productions.
Al-Baab Khan, a project specialist at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, presented research about AAPI depictions in TV series. Stereotyped characters, she said, include sidekicks, foreigners, persons isolated from others or those meeting violent deaths. If the industry is to move away from stereotypes and toward authentic narratives and portrayals, it must hire more AAPI storytellers and actors.
Case in point: Andrews — half-Samoan, born in New Jersey and raised Jewish — said he never felt "different" until he entered the entertainment industry.
"I turned down auditions because it was always for a bouncer or a thug," he recalled of his early career. "I'm trying to think if I've ever had a conversation on camera with someone who's Asian. Having more [AAPI] storytellers is important because the characters they want to give us are just not that exciting. [The change] has to start at the top."
Kwok is one such storyteller making a difference. The Cleaning Lady — now starting its second season — is about a Cambodian physician (Élodie Yung) who comes to the U.S. seeking medical help for her son but finds herself working for the mob. In developing the show, Kwok never thought to make more of the leading characters white: "I said quite clearly, 'This is the story I want to tell. And I want to have a Southeast Asian lead, and her sister and her family.'"
While executives may prefer hiring leads with broad experience, Kwok pointed out, "Most POCs [people of color] haven't had buddies who can give them jobs. Any POC I've known in this industry has had to fight for every single opportunity. They earned them, because of their talent."
Asked about current frustrations, UCP's Tsai replied: "The notion that white directors or white writers aren't being considered or prioritized [over diverse contenders]. I think it's a bit of a false narrative. So many of the candidates being brought forth are still primarily white, primarily seasoned writers who the showrunner knows. And the majority of my shows are still overseen by white showrunners."
And Akhtar — whose 2016 Emmy Award for his editing of the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the first win in that category by a person of color — said he's been told multiple times that a show wants to hire only directors of the ethnic group the show is depicting.
"There's a bit of an exclusionary thing that happens now," he said. "It's essentially saying, 'Well, you're South Asian, you should work on South Asian stuff.' And I'm like, 'Bro, I'm from Philadelphia. I know a lot more about that than I know about culture in India.'"
For those trying to make it in entertainment, Kwok advised, "There's no set path except the path that you make for yourself. No matter what, you should follow your passion, and not listen to those voices trying to direct you one way or the other. Be true to yourself."
To watch a replay of the event, click here.