By Lucy Zhou, NAPAWF Intern
One of the main characters in Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Up, is an 8 year old boy named Russell—and quite shockingly, he’s Asian American.
Like me, you may have had no idea from the trailers, which did not pay much attention to Russell’s ethnicity at all. Moreover, the news media didn’t have much to say about it, in contrast to the extensive marketing and media hype surrounding The Princess and the Frog, an animated film slated to come out this December featuring Disney’s first ever African American princess. Despite my initial disbelief, various sources have confirmed Russell’s race: not only is Russell voiced by Japanese American Jordan Nagai, Up directors based Russell’s character on Korean American Pixar animator Peter Sohn.
This is big news, especially in a society where APIs rarely, if ever, play lead roles in mainstream media. Too many films and TV shows simply relegate API actors to stereotypical stock characters: antisocial nerds, hypersexual females, effeminate males, or martial arts masters, complete with familial conflicts, identity crises and broken English.
Even films intended for API characters end up with whitewashed casts: take 21, the 2008 film inspired by the best-selling book, Bringing Down the House. Although the real-life students on which the story was based were mostly APIs, white actors Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth were cast in the lead roles, while minor roles were given to Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira as apparent visual lip service.
Or take the upcoming 2010 film Avatar: The Last Airbender, based on the Emmy-nominated Nickelodeon series. The show draws heavily from Asian cultures, which is obvious not only visually, but also through explicit statements by the show’s creators. The initial unveiling of the actors, however, revealed an all white cast. Due to scheduling conflicts, Jesse McCartney has since withdrawn from the cast, with Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel stepping in to play Prince Zuko. Patel is currently the only actor of Asian descent in the main cast—and coincidence?—he plays the villain.
Given this backdrop, Russell’s character in Up is quite extraordinary: not only is he one of the protagonists, he also comes free of the “racial baggage” that typically plagues API film and TV characters. At first, the lack of attention given to Russell’s ethnicity left me feeling bitter—perhaps the studio executives purposely downplayed Russell’s race out of fear that identifying him as an API would make him “unrelatable” to the general American public (a la MTV’s cautious promotion for Better Luck Tomorrow). But after watching the film last Thursday with some of my NAPAWF co-workers, I realized I have been waiting for a film like this for a long time—a film where an API lead isn’t defined by his or her race.
In an interview with Up’s director Peter Docter, he explains that they had considered making Russell’s race a story point, but ultimately decided against it: “I think by not dealing with it it’s more color blind or accepting or whatever, you just cast that character and move forward.”
Russell, then, is not an “Asian American boy”—he’s just a boy, and he represents a significant step in the right direction for API representation in the media. I hope what draws people to this film are the characters and the imaginative story, and that race is neither a detracting nor a selling point. Up would undoubtedly be a remarkable film even if Russell were not of Asian descent. But for me, it certainly is a bonus.
Lucy Zhou is supported by the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program.