As black-centred films gain attention in Hollywood, when will minority stories get produced in Singapore?
Life at the margins
Besides some mesmerising well-beat faces and glamorous gowns on the red carpet, this year's Oscars proved to be a record-breaking milestone for black actors and films coming out of Hollywood. Six of the seven wins in total went to black actors and crew who worked on black-centred films: Regina King took home Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk, which brilliantly adapted James Baldwin's 1974 novel on black love; Mahershala Ali received his second Oscar nod for his performance as a skilled jazz pianist who travels to the deep south in Green Book, which also controversially snagged the prestigious Best Picture award; Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first black winners of Best Costume Design and Best Production Design on the Afro-futurist box office hit Black Panther; Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott picked up Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.
Don't get me wrong; Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and representation of not only minority experiences but also of actors, crew and filmmakers behind the lens. For perspective on how far that road is, just take a look at last year's USC Annenberg study and UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, both of which published some pretty abysmal figures including the fact that only four movies in 2017 had a woman of colour at its centre, and in 2018, that number increased to a measly 11. Count Yalitza Aparicio of Netflix's Roma as one of them.
The months of March and April will see the release of two more black-led movies: director Jordan Peele follows up his racially charged satirical horror Get Out (2017) with an even creepier drama Us that stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o and a predominantly black cast; American artist Rashid Johnson's directorial debut Native Son, which tackles class systems and race relations through a young black man's (played by Ashton Sanders) life in Chicago, premieres 6 April on HBO.
While it might look like change is afoot in Hollywood and television in the U.S., progress is depressingly absent in Singapore. Last year, Singapore-born Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asian — which was supported by Singapore Tourism Board — ignited plenty of debate for its glaring omission of ethnic minorities in its film, while certainly perpetuating the notion of Chinese privilege in the country.
On local television, perspective is just as culturally blind. Take for instance Channel 5's long-running (823 episodes to be exact) drama series Tanglin, which thankfully concluded last year. While it's commendable that the show featured Indian actors such as Eswari Gunasagar, Mathialagan and James Kumar who would normally be sidelined to Vasantham (Mediacorp's dedicated Indian channel), its portrayal of the Bhaskar family was so out of touch with reality. Instead of taking on poignant race-specific issues or revealing the idiosyncrasies of a Singaporean Indian in a similar vein to American sitcom Black-ish, Tanglin offered up a tone-deaf interpretation of an expatriate family from India. The family was headed by a doctor, Bhasker Ram and Stepford wife wannabe Meera, who came together via an arranged marriage. Their daughter Shruti is a feeble rehash of Mean Girls' Cady Heron while their son Arjun is a cocky medical apprentice. The family lives in a fancy multi-storey landed property, eats with cutlery (instead of using their hands) and enunciates like a foreign exchange student. There are some interesting segues into inter-racial romance but it hardly lives up to the show's official "middle-income everyday Singaporean" description that's, in fact, more fitting for Under One Roof in the 1990s.
Things aren't looking up for local cinema either. The industry is ethnically dominated by Chinese producers, writers and filmmakers, who in turn, create movies that sideline minority actors to supporting roles that reinforce demeaning racial stereotypes at the expense of cheap, not-so-funny jokes. Take, for instance, Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men 4 (2017). The film attempts to put a comical spin on Singapore's compulsory reservist training for National Servicemen, and yet, it features a cast that's almost exclusively Chinese in absurd contrast to the military's heterogeneity. Actor Shrey Bhargava who attended the film's casting session in 2017, detailed an account of being requested to be a "full-blown Indian man" with a thick, foreign accent.
Few and far in between they might be, there are some rare examples of great storytelling that bring to life inclusive yet lesser-known narratives: Boo Junfeng's festival favourite Apprentice (2016) follows Aiman, a 28-year-old correctional officer, who grapples with his conscience when he becomes the hangman's assistant, as well as Rajagopal's sombre account of an Indian ex-convict looking to get back with his family and assimilate into society, takes a turn when he falls in love with a Chinese sex worker in A Yellow Bird (2016).
Inclusivity for its sake is obviously not the outcome we're all looking for. No one appreciates racial tokenism. For that matter, the invisibility of ethnic minorities on screen might, in fact, mirror the insular lives of the majority who often dictate what script gets realised or who gets cast. If minority-centred literature is scarce, will we ever see the adaptations of real-life events such as 2013's epic Little India riots or Mas Selamat's troubling jail escape in 2008? There might be no clear solutions or way forward for the local film and television industry's inherent institutional racism. If the year of the Singapore Bicentennial isn't going to achieve an inkling of progress, then all of us might just have to wait long-long.