I was ecstatic about the premise of Ryan Murphy’s latest show, “Hollywood.” An alternate history of the highly-glamorized post-war era of film featuring women, gay people and people of color sounds like something right up my alley.
But the storyline (or lack thereof) of a fictionalized version of real-life Chinese American actress Anna May Wong left me disenchanted and hurt. Murphy attempted to rescue an Asian icon whose legacy was infamously erased from Hollywood history, but the show barely includes her in her own redemption. It's ironic and telling of how out of touch the show is with its own message.
The second installment of the seven-episode series introduces Wong, played by Michelle Krusiec, via Darren Criss’s character, Filipino American film director Raymond Ainsley. Ainsley reaches out to Wong about a potential role and confides in her that as a fellow Asian American, he wants to see the industry change to be more inclusive of people like them.
Ainsley is also apologetic about Wong having lost the lead role in the 1937 film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth,” which is odd considering it happened over ten years before the episode takes place.
But this is something the show didn’t entirely make up. In reality, Wong did actually lose the lead role of O-lan in the film adaptation of “The Good Earth” to German actress Luise Rainer. Rainer performed the role in yellowface, later winning an Academy Award, a moment captured in the show.
Something the show neglects to include is that Wong lost the role not just because of the studio’s potential individual racism, but as a result of systemic racism. The Hays Code, a set of “moral guidelines” film studios adhered to from 1934 to 1968, prevented on-screen miscegenation. This means that because a white actor was already cast to play O-lan’s husband, Wong never had a chance at being cast.
“Hollywood” attempts to correct this injustice by giving Wong a supporting role in Ainsley’s new film, “Meg,” while several newcomers are given leads. After the second episode, we don’t see much of Wong — she doesn’t really interact with any of the other characters and even when she wins an Oscar for her performance in “Meg,” her moment in the spotlight is brief and barely even about her.
In her sixty seconds of screen time, Wong thanks the nearly all-white production team behind the film and delivers a line that simply doesn’t sit well with my soul: “You gave my life purpose again.”
The line embodies the issue with Murphy’s version of Wong. Here is a woman whose career was permanently stifled by the racist guidelines of the Hays Code and discriminatory casting practices of film studios, and she uses her special moment to praise the white saviors who finally let her squeeze her foot in the door.
My advice to white showrunners such as Murphy is to not attempt to revise the racist history of old Hollywood only to feed into the problems with Asian representation that still persists today. It’s sad to see that decades after her death, Wong still doesn’t get to be the leading lady, even in a storyline that’s supposed to be about her.
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