[Spoilers ahead for “Hollywood” TV series]
The new Netflix original series “Hollywood” features the true story of Anna May Wong. Wong was a movie actress in the 1950s. While she isn’t the main character of the series, the retelling of her story is the most moving aspect to many Asian American viewers. Her legacy was ignored for years. Now, Wong is finally getting much-deserved appreciation.
First, a brief history of the first Chinese American movie star. She starred in the first technicolor movie “The Toll of the Sea” (based on the opera “Madame Butterfly”). She went on to play many supporting roles such as Princess Tiger Lily in the silent adaptation of “Peter Pan.” The studio system forced her into small roles that fetishized her culture. The prohibition of interraical couples on screen prevented her from playing major roles. Tired of getting bit parts, she found fame in Germany in stage shows and films. She returned to Los Angeles after signing a contract with Paramount Studios. But history repeated itself. The studio refused to give her the leading role of O-Lan in “The Good Earth.” It was instead given to white actress Luise Rainer, who received an Oscar for the role. The studio offered Wong the role of Lotus, another stereotypical side character.
Anna May Wong died in 1961 at the age of 56. She never got the recognition she deserved. Netflix’s “Hollywood” tells a different story. The show looks at the historic lack of inclusion of women and people of color in front of and behind the camera. Creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan tell a story of what could have been in the Golden Age of Hollywood. This revisionist retelling of Wong’s life gives the audience moments of victory. Wong gets a role that reflects her worth, is directed by a man of color, and receives an Oscar for her talent. She also gets a speech in the first episode ranting her frustrations with the industry. While Wong will never reap the benefits of this newfound fame, the least history can do is honor and preserve her memory.
Are shows like “Hollywood” doing enough for Asian representation in the media? It casts Asian actors to play Asian characters, even representing those of mixed race. Darren Criss, a half Filipino actor, plays Raymond Ainsely, a half Filipino character. But while the series aims to show the perspective of minorities, it has been criticized on social media for its straight, white leading man.
The show ends up walking the line. It attempts to uplift the voices of the silenced through a re-imagined past but floats a bit too close to the idealistic Dreamland. While it has its flaws, the attention “Hollywood” brought to Anna May Wong is undeniable. The internet is flooding with recounts of her history, impact, bravery and pride in her culture, even in the 1960s. She stuck to her guns to demand roles that she felt were authentic to Asian culture and was unapologetic about it. She couldn’t foresee the future of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” but she saw her self-worth. Anna May Wong is a name that will go down in history as an Asian American movie icon.