Study finds Asians largely 'invisible' in Hollywood's top films

'When portrayals erase, dehumanise, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire,' says Dr Stacy Smith

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Michelle Yeoh, from left, Henry Golding and Constance Wu in a scene from the film "Crazy Rich Asians." (Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Aside from action star Dwayne Johnson's hit movies, Hollywood's most popular films have rarely featured Asians or Pacific Islanders in leading roles on the big screen, according to an academic study released on Tuesday.

The findings showed "an epidemic of invisibility" for Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) in movies released from 2007 to 2019, said the study from researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

They also said the under-representation and stereotypical portrayals may have contributed to recent incidents of violence and harassment against Asians in the United States.

About 7.1 per cent of the US population identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander. In the 1,300 top-grossing films during the study period, 3.4 per cent of leads or co-leads were played by API actors, the researchers found.

(from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) in "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw," directed by David Leitch. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Of 44 films with API actors in leading roles, 14 of them starred Johnson, the former wrestler known for the Fast & Furious and Jumanji films. Johnson's mother is from the Pacific island of American Samoa.

Six movies featured a female API character in a lead role, the study said.

The report adds to research that has found under-representation of women, people of colour and LGBTQ characters in movies and television. In response, Hollywood studios have pledged to increase the diversity of people in front of and behind the camera. Notable recent films included the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians and the 2020 action film Mulan, both with large Asian casts.

While the study found the number of API characters lacking, the researchers also criticised the way many of them were portrayed.

Sixty seven per cent of API characters were shown as "the perpetual foreigner" with a non-American accent, were hyper-sexualised, subject to racial slurs or fell into another stereotype, the researchers said.

"Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community," said Stacy Smith, a researcher on the study. "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."

The study was conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative with sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen. It was funded by Amazon Studios and the UTA Foundation.