Every year, the Academy Awards celebrates what it considers to be the best films of the previous twelve months, and every year, they end up issuing some sort of half-assed apology over the sheer blinding whiteness of their shortlist. The staggering lack of representation at the Oscars, and by extension the rest of the entertainment industry, has been a topic of contention for a long time. Indeed, it could be argued that the issue is as old as Hollywood itself. The Academy claims it’ll do better, studios release non-apologies that promise tangible change in the future, then we get a solid year of evolution before reverting back to the same old nonsense. 2021 has the potential to feel like a turning point with its inclusive nominations, featuring two whole women directors and two acting categories that are majority men of color, but we’ve plenty of reasons to remain cynical.
It’s common to hear talk about how things are ‘better than they used to be’, which may technically be true, but it overlooks the insidious nature of that history. Hollywood was designed to be racist. It created rules to uphold white supremacy. The Academy Awards, itself a creation of anti-union sentiment, maintained that status quo for as long as it could until it became too publicly embarrassing to continue. To understand that, let’s go back to the 1930s and examine what remains one of the most racist Oscar wins in history.
The 10th Academy Awards were held on March 10, 1938. The big winner of the night was a biopic of Emile Zola, with prizes also handed out to the likes of Spencer Tracy, the original version of A Star is Born, and the Disney cartoon The Old Mill. The Best Actress category included four true icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Barbara Stanwyck, Janet Gaynor, Greta Garbo, and Irene Dunne. The winner, however, was Luise Rainer. She became the first person to win consecutive acting Oscars, following the previous year’s win for The Great Ziegfeld. This time, she won for The Good Earth, a lavish adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. The story centered on the struggles of an ensemble of Chinese farmers. Buck was the daughter of missionaries who grew up in China and the novel was a major hit in the U.S. Oprah later picked it for her book club. Many historians consider the book an important cultural touchstone in terms of helping white Americans to view China as allies in the coming war with Japan.
Irving Thalberg, one of the most powerful producers at MGM in the ’30s, saw the film version as his golden goose. The Good Earth would be a big-budget historical epic. There were even talks about filming the movie in China, but those were quickly scuppered by the country’s government. This would be a sweeping tale of dignity, poverty, and the unflappable human spirit.
This is the part where I should mention that Luise Rainer isn’t Chinese. Neither was anyone else in the movie.
Yellowface was wildly common in cinema and would remain dishearteningly prevalent throughout the decades. The consistent whitewashing and marginalization of Asian representation in Hollywood is embedded into the industry’s foundations. The act of painting white actors’ skin to have them play the role of a person of color is something that has never entirely gone away. It’s fully how people of color have been defined on-screen too. The very first Black character to ever appear in a film was a white man in blackface for a short version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The insidious damage done by this practice continues in film to this day. Film was made to support whiteness. Consider how, even today, so many white filmmakers and cinematographers struggle to light Black actors.
The list of white actors who have donned yellowface is embarrassingly long: Katharine Hepburn, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Alec Guinness, David Carradine, Marlon Brando, and many more (and I’m not even counting crap like Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell). Jennifer Jones received an Oscar nomination for playing an Asian woman in Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Linda Hunt won one for playing a Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously. White people in yellowface seems to be a safer way to get an Oscar nomination than, you know, being an actual East Asian actor. Remember, it took until this year for an Asian-American actor to get a Best Actor nomination. You can count the number of major Hollywood productions with majority Asian casts on your hand.
It never even seemed to enter MGM’s thought process that they could hire East Asian actors for The Good Earth. It’s not as though they were short of options either. But yellowface was the default mode, and the Hays Code practically demanded it. They went with white actors, choosing two Oscar winners for the lead roles: Paul Muni and Luise Rainer. The latter was MGM’s latest project, a German beauty they hoped would become their next Greta Garbo. She was brought to Hollywood in 1935, given plum roles, and pushed by Louis B. Mayer as their next superstar. Giving her the role of O-Lan, the long-suffering but devoted Chinese peasant, in The Good Earth was part of that trajectory. It’s a baity role by any stretch of the imagination, one where the actor doesn’t speak much but must convey a tidal wave of emotions through sheer expression. Of course, the fact that she was white and had a very heavy German accent didn’t seem to bother Thalberg or MGM. Verisimilitude was never the name of the game at that period in cinema.
The actor who should have been cast in that role, and the woman who should have been heralded as an Oscar darling, never had a chance of being cast in the lead. Anna May Wong was one of the few Hollywood stars of East Asian origin in the 1930s. A Los Angeles native born to second-generation Taishanese Chinese-American parents, Wong was a reliable scene-stealer in films like Shanghai Express and Daughter of Shanghai. Despite her range and charisma, Wong was typically shoved into stereotypical and deeply problematic roles. She was usually the scheming Asian seductress or the demure Madame Butterfly type, and not much else. The major studios didn’t make films with complex leading roles written for East Asian women. Until The Good Earth.
Wong campaigned hard for the role of O-Lan, but the moment that the very white Paul Muni was cast in the role of O-Lan’s husband, her dreams were scuppered. The Hays Code, which dictated what was and wasn’t ‘decent’ on the big screen, forbade ‘miscegenation’, meaning that interracial relationships were considered as offensive as ‘white slavery’, ‘sex hygiene’, and children’s sex organs. So, Anna May Wong could not be cast in the role of a Chinese woman because it would have required her to kiss a white man in yellowface, and even though he was pretending to be another race, his whiteness was asserted as the ‘decent’ thing. White supremacy was positioned not only as the ‘default mode’ but the morally upstanding one. Once again: racism was part of Hollywood’s lifeblood and it’s never been fully acknowledged to this day.
Thalberg offered Wong a supporting role in the film instead, which Wong turned down. The part she had been offered, as the scheming concubine Lotus, was the only unsympathetic character in the movie, and Wong knew how offensive it was for her to be further sidelined in this manner. She told MGM to their faces that this was bullsh*t too, saying, ‘I won’t play the part. If you let me play O-Lan, I’ll be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.’ Lotus was then played by Tilly Losch in yellowface.
Luise Rainer’s stardom didn’t last very long. She pushed back against the MGM machine, then her movies started to disappoint at the box office, so she stepped away from the industry and made her final Hollywood film in 1943. Anna May Wong left Hollywood to tour China for a few years before returning to work in B-movies at Paramount. She helped to raise money for the Chinese cause against Japan during the Second World War, and in 1951, she starred in the first-ever U.S. television show with an Asian American series lead.
No East Asian actress has ever been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. This year, Youn Yuh-jung became the first Korean actress to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
Discrimination isn’t just about blind spots or privilege. It’s about the systemic and legal barriers deliberately put in place by white supremacy at every turn. Hollywood’s problems are merely a reflection of the intense anti-Asian bigotry bred into the very center of whiteness, something that is all too evident right now. It’s the denial of humanity, and when film is, as Roger Ebert described it, supposed to be our great machine for empathy, it’s actively failing at its job when it proudly embodies white supremacy.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.