Roger Ebert is an inspiration to countless film critics and was a champion for daring filmmakers around the world. One moment where he literally stood up for an up-and-coming Asian-American director has proved pivotal in the life of another, Crazy Rich Asians’ helmer Jon M. Chu.
Next Shark unearthed a video from the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin was confronted by an outraged accuser at the Q&A following Better Luck Tomorrow. The drama that starred Sung Kang and John Cho features bored Asian-American teens committing petty crimes, spurring one audience member to ask, “Why, with the talent up there and yourself, make a film so empty and amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?”
Essentially, when Asian-Americans are so underrepresented in American cinema, why make a movie that shows any Asian-American in a negative light? It’s a reactionary question, and one that’s arisen in many forms as marginalized groups gain greater spotlight in mainstream media. But what this concern overlooks is that representation shouldn’t mean PR. It means people regardless of race/creed/gender/size/sexual orientation/ableness playing characters who are complex and live outside of suffocating stereotypes. Ebert understood this. And as Lin was at a loss for words, Ebert took the lead, standing up from his seat in the audience and declared:
“What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’…Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be.”
Here’s the video:
With this video resurfacing, Taiwanese American filmmaker Jon M. Chu, helmer of Step Up 2: The Streets, Jem and the Holograms and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, shared his connection to this moment on Twitter:
I was there in person at this Sundance screening when I was in College &remember hearing these powerful words by Roger Ebert &the cast of BetterLuckTomorrow. This idea always stayed with me as I made my own movies especially while making #CrazyRichAsians https://t.co/EBKtyLPKSQ— Jon M. Chu (@jonmchu) August 24, 2018
Ebert used his position as a respected critic and his privilege as a white man to support emerging Asian-Americans artist making their own determinations on filmmaking and representation. Lin went on to helm a string of entries in one of the world’s most inclusive franchises, Fast and Furious. Chu, who was in the audience that night, went on to make a name for himself with action movies and musicals, then delivered the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature an all-Asian cast in 25 years with Crazy Rich Asians.
It’s been a stellar year for Asian-American representation thanks to Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Killing Eve. Yet the fact that these projects feel revolutionary because they dare to center on Asian-American leads shows how far we still have to go.