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.”
God, we should hope not. In fact, Crazy Rich Asians works exactly because it didn’t attempt to be for everyone. It was a story set in the world of old-money Chinese living in Singapore, based on a book written by a guy whose great grandfather was the founding director of Singapore’s oldest bank. This should be the ultimate lesson in writing what you know, even if it seems insanely niche (how much more niche does it get than being born of old money expat bankers?). It was Crazy Rich Asians’ specific perspective that made it work (well, that and the food porn). Otherwise, it was just a general rom-com. Sure, it was only the perspective of the super rich and the only-mildly-rich, fish-out-of-water protagonist in this case, but… baby steps (it’s always easier to write rich characters, hence why we have five attempts at Richie Rich and none at Poory Poor).
Crazy Rich Asians is representative, but it’s not the only example. What would Ladybird be if it hadn’t been set in a specific place and time (Sacramento, c. 2003)? Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about “Asians,” it’s about Chinese-Singaporeans. Searching isn’t just a thriller about an Asian family, it’s a thriller about an Asian family in Silicon Valley in 2018, filled with characters and places and types specific to Silicon Valley. It’s true for so many of this year’s acclaimed indies — To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Blindspotting, and even the quasi-surrealist Sorry To Bother You are all inseparable from their settings and perspective.
In the franchise era of filmmaking, commerce has been brilliant at seeming to suck the art and humanity out of the storytelling gesture. Even the films that used to seem like goofy fun feel designed by focus groups and algorithms. Sometimes I think all I want out of a film nowadays is for the filmmaker to pass the Turing test. We get precious few trends worth celebrating from an artistic perspective. But this new thing where empower people to tell their own stories without generalizing? It’s… nice.