Hollywood Still Won’t Give Asian American or Pacific Islander Actors a Chance. Except ‘The Rock’.

Dwayne Johnson has been carrying most of the AAPI representation in Hollywood on his very strong shoulders. That needs to change.
Hollywood Still Basically Won’t Give Asian American or Pacific Islander Actors a Chance
Dwayne Johnson at a movie premier in Los Angeles in 2021. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — a.k.a. the planet's most beloved large man —has had a WWE wrestling, American football, and an acting career. 

He might also run for president of the United States someday. 


Now it’s emerged that he’s the top actor playing a third of all AAPI (Asian American, Pacific Islander) roles in Hollywood.

A new study published by the University of Southern California Inclusion Initiative, led by sociologist and professor Nancy Wang Yuen, found that of the 1,300 Hollywood films spanning 13 years from 2007 to 2019, only 3.4 percent of the top-grossing movies featured AAPI leads. And Johnson was a lead in 14 of these 44 films. 

Examples of these films include the Fast & Furious franchise where he played Luke Hobbs, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level where he played Dr Xander Bravestone, and Moana where he voiced Maui. 

The second AAPI actor with five roles as the lead is Keanu Reeves. Constance Wu, Hailee Steinfeld, and Chloe Bennet were the only women on the list with a combined total of five films.

“The Rock” is one of the world’s wealthiest actors with a net worth of over $400 million, and was one of the highest paid celebrities in 2020 with earnings of $87.5 million according to Forbes. Johnson’s mother is from the Pacific island of American Samoa.

“There just aren’t enough roles for [Pacific Islanders] and Asian actors in general. And that’s why we see ‘The Rock’ so many times,” Yuen told NBC News. “We don’t see anyone else, because it’s coming from behind the scenes. It’s the storytellers, the people who are greenlighting the projects. The Rock succeeding could actually help bring more Pacific Islander actors.”

The study found that only 13 percent of the AAPI characters “had a full spectrum of relationships” in their films, where “audiences know about their family, friends and romantic interests.” Apart from Johnson’s role in Jumanji, recent examples of this include Destiny (Constance Wu) in Hustlers, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) in Yesterday and Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) in Parasite.


“They are just not seen as mainstream by Hollywood,” Yuen saids. “Hollywood just isn’t ready to tell those stories, despite the fact that there are audiences out there who want to see that.” 

According to the study, over 45.5 percent of AAPI leads, co-leads and actors on screen were East Asian and 36.4 percent were South Asian across the 1,300 films reviewed. The study also found that across 200 films from 2018-2019 with AAPI actors, 36.3 percent of the actors had Chinese heritage and 15.9 percent were of Indian heritage. 

Native Hawaaiian, Tongan, Cambodian, Nepalese, Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Bengali heritages ranked the lowest with less than one percent representation on screen. 

Furthermore, 18 percent of the primary and secondary AAPI characters spoke English with a non-American accent in films in 2019, and 67 percent of the characters fell into stereotyped tropes. These include, but are not limited to, sexualisation, tokenism, social behaviours, wardrobe, violence, immigration, and language.

“These findings offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences,” Stacy L. Smith, one of the authors of the study, said in a press statement. “Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community. When portrayals erase, dehumanise, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”

Asian Americans make up seven percent of the United States population. In the recent months, rising attacks on Asians in the U.S. have left several communities feeling insecure.

Actors have voiced concerns about the findings of the study as well. “The numbers speak for themselves — again,” said actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim in the same press statement. “They are a sobering look at how far the industry still has to go to counter the invisibility of our community onscreen. If anything is to improve, the historic indifference on the part of decision-makers toward increased Asian American representation must go beyond the usual performative rhetoric to actual, demonstrable change.”

The study also points out that on-screen deaths of AAPI characters are jarring in light of the rising instances of anti-AAPI violence in the United States. “In the top 100 films of 2019, just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander characters die by the end of the film and all but one death ended violently,” said Yuen. “This, along with 41.8 percent of API characters receiving on-screen disparagement.” 

Yuen warns that the racial slurs on screen towards Asians can further lead to anti-AAPI hate. Stop AAPI Hate, a non profit that works on tracking instances of violence and discrimination towards the AAPI community in the U.S., reported over 6,603 hate incidents from March 2020 to March 2021. Verbal harassment made up 65.2 percent of the reported incidents.

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