Over the weekend, Crazy Rich Asians, the Jon M. Chu-directed adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel, became the highest-grossing studio rom-com in nine years. The success of Crazy Rich Asians (which also happened to be a decent movie) and movies like it this year have given Hollywood ample opportunity to do what it does best: congratulate itself. And it’s true, we’ve gotten a greater diversity of protagonists than ever before, mainstream films both headlined and written by women and people of color. Personal essays abound about what it’s like to finally feel “seen,” to recognize people “like you” getting to be the stars and not just the supporting cast and comic relief for “all American” white folks.
But, as almost always happens with any self-congratulatory proclamations from traditional studio power structures, you have to wonder if they’re partly missing the point. The benefits of “diversity” go beyond that specific group’s sense of inclusion, and beyond the power structure’s feeling of charity. Which is to say, even if you were completely blind to race and historical iniquity, diversity isn’t altruism. It’s just good storytelling. Don’t do it for us, do it for you.
Depicting different perspectives requires specificity, which just makes for better stories. The individual experience is the heart of storytelling. For years we got movies set in unnamed small towns, almost as if the setting was meant to be a stand-in, a blank spot in which to envision ourselves. But that just isn’t how personal connections work. We aren’t attracted to vague ideas of things, we’re attracted to the funny little details, the crumbs and whispers that remind us of the things we know that help us learn something new. That’s how empathy works. It’s the same aspect of human nature that gives us the human interest story, that makes us care more about one person in a well than 3,000 in a famine, even when we know objectively which story matters more. Does that make us terrible? A little, probably, but the lesson is that specificity counts. Wielded correctly, the artist can mindfuck us into being better, more well-rounded people.
In congratulating ourselves for putting different faces on screen we’re kind of missing the point. Crazy Rich Asians even got some flack for not being a “panacea of diversity,” to the point that star Constance had to admit that it “won’t represent every Asian-American.”