In 'Crazy Rich Asians', White People Are Extras — And That's An Even Bigger Deal Than You Realize
A lot has been made of the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is the first Asian-led film by a major American studio in 25 years, and with good reason: that's a very long time. Yet the magnitude of this didn't truly hit me until I went to see Crazy Rich Asians myself and barely saw any white faces. All the movie's roles belonged to Asian actors, except for those in the background. You see, in Crazy Rich Asians, it's white people who are the extras. And realizing that, I thought, "Well, I'll be damned."
As we all know, white people are usually the stars of any movie. You never have to search for white people; they're just there. So, the idea of them only popping up in the background (and rarely at that) in Crazy Rich Asians switches things up from the norm in a way that goes beyond the fact that the main cast of the film is Asian. After all, it's not a stretch to think that a the makers of a major motion picture starring a minority cast might still fit in white people wherever it could in order to appeal to white audiences. As author Kevin Kwan told The Hollywood Reporter, when he was in the process of optioning his book, one producer told him, "It's a pity you don't have a white character." Kwan was even pitched the idea of having main character Rachel Chu changed to a white woman.
And even if Rachel wasn't made white, the idea of there being a few white characters in the film wouldn't be far-fetched, either. Many "black movies" have token white supporting characters, and while it can be a way of flipping the stereotypical token black character trope, as pointed out by Complex, the fact that it happens often makes it stand out more when a movie doesn't go that route and allows the entire cast to represent a minority group. Even movies like Black Panther and Girls' Trip, which were big box office hits and huge wins for black representation, had white characters with supporting roles.
This is not to say that white people aren't allowed to have roles in films staring minority casts, but it does shows how rare it is for a whole cast to be non-white. That simply doesn't happen in Hollywood — but it did with Crazy Rich Asians.
I'm not Asian, and I understand that the representation this film shows can't possibly hit me in the same way it does an Asian — specifically Chinese or Singaporean — viewer. I am a minority, though (I'm half-black and half-white), and I got choked up numerous times during the film, often overwhelmed at the fact that I was watching an entire cast of non-white actors.
Considering how many movies are led by white casts, I've been used to looking for myself in the background my whole life. Even if a brown-skinned, curly-haired woman has just a couple of lines, I'm used to connecting with that — and having to connect with that because it's all I get. American moviegoers of color are so used to getting measly portions when it comes to representation compared to the feast Crazy Rich Asians gives Asian audiences, not just in the cast, but in the music, locations, food, and more. As a biracial viewer, it was so easy to feel the power of that, immediately and intensely.
In Crazy Rich Asians, white people won't see themselves front and center. If they want to see someone who looks like them (and, really, they shouldn't crave this. There's only, like, a billion movies about white people) they will have to look in the background. At a random partygoer at the bachelor party. At a man off to the side on an airplane. At a member of the band at the wedding reception. In the movie, white extras aren't inserted into situations and locations where they wouldn't be in the real world just so that there can be more of them in the film. For instance, in the scene where Oliver and Peik Lin give Rachel her makeover, their team of assistants are all Asian. As they would be. In Asia.
Because so many movies star white casts (and because America is... America), we tend to think of movies as "black movies" or "Asian movies" where movies with white casts are just... movies. Crazy Rich Asians using white people as extras puts that issue into high relief. A film doesn't need white actors to succeed or to tell a whole story or to get people to watch it. People are where they're meant to be in this movie, and if you're a minority viewer, that just might bring a tear to your eye.