Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


“Olympus Has Fallen” and racial nativism

March 22, 2013

Today is the release date of Olympus Has Fallen, an action movie that unfortunately reflects the Hollywood (and American) stereotype of white nativism: the assumption that American automatically means white.

“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”Toni Morrison

Synopsis of the movie:

Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President (Aaron Eckhart) from his kidnappers.

 Pros (sort of):

  • Not everyone in the movie is white.  Actors of color include Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman (third billing) as the Speaker of the House
  • Women play important roles in the White House.  Angela Bassett plays the director of the Secret Service and Melissa Leo plays the “Secretary of Defense who cracks when tortured.” (Maybe not so flattering, since reviewers describe her as “hysterical.”)
  • The director is Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), one of the few big directors of color in Hollywood.

Cons (critiques?):

  • The First Lady gets fridged so she can be character development for not one but two male characters.
  • Although the Vice President is named “Charlie Rodriguez” he is not played by a Latino actor. The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts condemned this whitewashed casting, saying “these films use our names, but don’t hire our actors.”
  • Asian American actor Rick Yune plays the film’s “sociopathic monster,” Kang, a “North Korean posing as a South Korean ministerial aide.”  Phil Yu writes:the plot hangs on the fact that the inscrutable villains disguise themselves as Good Asian Allies — but surprise! Of course, evil all along.”
  • Both Rick Yune and Gerard Butler have terrible accents in this.  Yune is trying to make his American accent sound foreign while Butler is trying his best to sound American and is just kind of growl-mumbling.
  • There are no substantive or patriotic Asian American characters in the film, just the sneaky villains who posed like nice Asians but turned out to be evil.  

Rick Yune’s “Kang” threatens Aaron Eckhart’s “President Benjamin Asher”

Going back to the racial nativism piece though…

This is the second “yellow peril” film released within a year to feature white, non-American actors as Big ol’ American Heroes (TM) while casting [Asian] American actors as the evil, foreign invaders.

As part of his promotional tour for this film, Gerard Butler visited American troops in San Diego, CA

For example, Red Dawn(2012)  features white Australian Chris Hemmsworth as the leader of the American resistance movement.   He faces off against Will Yun Lee, an Asian American actor who plays a villainous North Korean invader.

There’s some sick irony when Hemmsworth declares to the resistance fighters he is leading–including Isabel Lucas, another white Australian actor–that Will Yun Lee’s character and the other Asian American-played North Koreans just don’t appreciate America the way they do:  “To them, [America] is just a place, but to us, this is our home,” barks Hemmsworth the Australian, describing the bad guys played by the American actors.  

In the film Olympus has Fallen, white Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays the heroic ex-Secret Service agent who must save the day from Asian American actor Rick Yune’s duplicitous foreign terrorist.

By following this casting trope, Olympus has Fallen replicates the white nativist “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that “white” is default “American” while “Asian” (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign.

Hollywood is unconstrained in whether or not the American hero needs to be played by an American (a refreshing attitude) with the unspoken caveat that these American heroes must be white.   This is why white British actor Andrew Garfield can be cast as Spider-man from Queens, New York while black American actor Donald Glover could not even score an audition.   This is why, when Warner Bros. decided to “Americanize” Akira, they made a long list of prospective lead actors– some from the US but many from the UK–all of them were considered appropriate for the Americanization and all of them were white. “Americanizing” the franchise did not mean casting American (including African American, Native American, Japanese American etc.) actors.

Rick Yune was born in Washington D.C.  How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital?  Yet, he is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it.  The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor– because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more “American patriot” than an Asian American actor.

Imagine an alternate universe version of this “Die Hard in the White House” film, starring Rick Yune as the hero:

Disgraced former Presidential guard James Kang (Rick Yune) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, [*cough* including his iffy second generation Korean language skills] Kang works with national security to rescue the President (Morgan Freeman) from his kidnappers.

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Great article. These days in Hollywood its so subtle the ‘White Washing’ techniques. What I find fascinating about this Die Hard rip off that very few reviewers have called this film out. Why do American action filmmakers always travel this route when we need a contemporary adversary? From the 1950 through to the 80’s, it was the Soviet Union, but it seems Hollywood has gone full circle back to Asians starting during World War 2 (Every Japanese was a potential “Enemy Agent”) now it’s the North Koreans. Maybe director Fuqua should’ve used your idea–that’s a film I would’ve gladly took a look at!

  • Paul

    just watch the original Manchurian Candidate. Brilliant film

    • crazy MMer

      I absolutely agree: if the commies want a double agent then the best choice would be a white male – since nobody would suspect a white person to perpetuate treason.

      and also, they should make a movie about that Russian spy ring, along with the Israeli ones.

  • In a perfect world I would say “Who cares.” But this world is not perfect, and movies are never just movies. This makes me wonder whether should Hollywood ever portray contemporary German politicians, if they ever get away from portraying us as Nazis that is, how many of our politicians would be whitewashed, especially our Vice chancellor. Although to be honest I wonder how many German politcians would be whitewashed by our own film industry.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention they just had to throw in a line about the response from the Middle East primarily being dancing in the streets when they heard about the attack…

  • Anonymous

    It’s quite strange that Hollywood is apparently more comfortable casting non-American white people as Americans than non-white people who were actually born in America. Especially considering so many of them come from the UK, which has something of a rocky history with the US: not so long ago British actors were usually cast as the villains. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

  • Raiden

    Its nothing new. . . I wont condemn this film as ‘outrageously racist’ or portraying Asians as a ‘eternal foreigner’ or being ‘Racially Nativist’ but I will say as an Action movie goes its. . . typical. Nothing we haven’t seen before. If it had cast a non-white in the lead role, it would be a little less typical, but it wouldn’t change the fact that we’ve seen this movie time and time before.

    Air Force One, Die Hard, True Lies, all essentially the same film with different titles and slight variations on the same scenario, but at their heart still essentially the same plot. Terrorists take hostages, and only one man on the inside with experience can save them and stop the terrorists with their wartime/Commando experience.

    I chose not to go see this film because of the ‘Asians as villains’ stereotype (although that certainly didn’t help), I chose not to go see it because if I wanted to see Die Hard or True Lies again, I’d go see Die Hard or True Lies again.

    • happyappa

      “I wont condemn this film as ‘outrageously racist’ or portraying Asians as a ‘eternal foreigner’ or being ‘Racially Nativist'”

      White=good, Asian=bad – check
      White guy plays a Latino – check (and seriously why even name the character Charlie Rodriguez if they’re going to do this)
      Asian-American cast as foreigner with foreign accent – check
      British plays American guy because he is white – check

      Sounds like all 3 if you ask me

      • Raiden

        There is a fine line between between being vigilantly against racism, and seeing racism everywhere.

        True, I would like to see more POC in non-Stereotypical roles (like this movie). But are you saying we shouldn’t let minorities audition/play villains because of the racist implications?

        • No, we are not saying and did not say that. To say that actors of color cannot play villains would be patently ridiculous; however, it continues to be problematic when actors of color play racially stereotyped villains, and when their opportunities are limited to only racially stereotyped villain roles.

          • Raiden

            I was just asking for a little clarity. I did not intend to offend anyone.

        • happyappa

          “But are you saying we shouldn’t let minorities audition/play villains because of the racist implications?”

          No, but you can’t deny that this film is a huge mess (especially where race is concerned). In the new ST movie, it would have been great if Khan was played by an Indian man, but it seems anytime there is any kind of deep/multidimensional villain, it’ll just go to a white guy. And it did.

        • racist medias

          an Asian-American actor playing Iago in a modern adaptation of Othello would be awesome and everybody would actually be supporting it.

          this schlock racist portrayal is just the same old yellow peril since over 150+ years ago.

          • Raiden

            If it is any kind of consolation, I didn’t go see Olympus. I just wanted to put out my reasons for not going to see it. I grew up on Action movies like Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon, so I’m not as offended by stereotypes as I probably should be.

            What DOES bug me is that there are usually no POC on the side of the Angels in movies like this. I would have tolerated the Red Dawn remakes ridiculous North Korean invasion, if at least one member of the Resistance had been Asian American.

  • happyappa

    This summer “White House Down” will be released and the story is pretty similar to OHF. It has Jamie Foxx and Garcelle Beauvais playing the president and first lady. The “paramilitary invaders” are American and I think they’re all white. A problem is the secret service agents are practically all white (at least the main ones), and there is only one woman. Also, the main character is a white dude who is a secret service reject and can apparently take down all the bad guys… Old but sounds a little better than OHF. Not good enough though

  • “Actors of color include Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman (third billing) as the Speaker of the House”

    Really? Why mention the fact that Freeman gets third billing as if it matters? The billing is alphabetical, so of course Freeman would follow Butler and Eckhart.

  • zdrav

    According to Hollywood, white foreigners are more American than non-white Americans.

  • Shanna Thibodeaux

    President Palmer in 24? His brother President Wayne Palmer also in 24? President Tom Beck in Deep Impact? President Mays William in Head Of State? President Deebo Lindberg in The Fifth Element? President Thomas Wilson in 2012? President Black Bush from Chapelle Show? President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camachoin in Idiocracy? That’s just a small sampling of African American casting for roles as leader of the free world on tv and the big screen…ranging from spoof, drama, comedy, scifi etc. Sooooo… yea, your argument is pretty much completely invalid.

  • Kevin Malone

    I hope you’re not talking about this one: http://www.snopes.com/rumors/cnn.asp

    What I remember is the spontaneous candle light vigils in Iran (http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=44b_1359356589&comments=1) and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian students standing in silence (http://groups.colgate.edu/aarislam/response.htm)

    • Eddie Dane

      Did you read that snopes article?

  • Kevin Malone

    Strange. I could not reply to your reply. Anyways: Conceded. In my haste to make a point that not all reactions were gleeful I shot myself in the foot. I was under the assumption you thought there was consensus celebration in the Middle East after 9/11. I read through the other sources posted.

  • Phil

    After seeing the hateful racist tweets of moviegoers who went to see this movie, I wonder if Antoine Fuqua had considered having the villains come from some other country – how about a band of fundamentalists from Somalia? Oh wait, he wouldn’t be so keen to promote more hostility towards people of his own skin colour would he?

    Rick Yune may be proud to be born in Washington, USA but he might not be so pleased with himself if one of those hateful tweeters walked up to him on the street and broke his nose to satisfy some stoked-up hatred of Asians, perhaps if one of his family members was the victim… perhaps he might think twice about demonizing Asians on the big screen next time.

  • Phil

    “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” – Toni Morrison

    What’s even funnier is that the original inhabitants of North America, instead of being called American also have to hyphenate!

  • tar

    I agree its sad that an American actor was a secondary character, an evil character for that matter, to an actor from another country in a highly patriotic film because he doesn’t look like the ideal American. Rick Yune has a little brother Karl Yune who play the bad guy designer in the movie real steel. He was secondary to Hugh Jackman an Australian actor as well. The story could have been about his character a top robot designer who deigned a top of the line robot only to have his former employer a large corporation takes his design. Being felt nothing but the son he felt in pursuit of his career and while taking care of the kid, they find an old robot which they fix up and fight. The rest is history.

  • Revile

    This is like one of my biggest arguments with whats wrong with films nowadays, especially with these Die Hard type films, or even live action Anime -based films. Like Akira and Dragonball Evolution. Both are homegrown in Japan yet feature mainly white people as their leading roles, when in the stories, they are clearly Chinese, Japanese etc. Also most movies nowadays only revolve around one main protagonist making it seem like the world revolves around them instead of a more human approach as was the problem with World War Z (film). Hollywood truly sucks when it comes to making good entertainment. And its all due to their Arrogant narrow-mindedness, and refusal to accept that America isn’t white, America is quite colorful and that’s what makes it what it is.

  • Philos

    Good read. Agree that it does no justice to Asian Americans to cast Asian American actors in stereo-typed villainous roles. Would add that it also does no justice to Asians (or maybe bilingual Asian Americans) to cast Asian American actors who can’t speak their language correctly – Korean, Chinese, etc. 95% of Korean spoken in Olympus was unintelligible and sounded like a made-up-broadly-Asian language. Couldn’t the movie makers spend just a little bit of money to train people to speak correctly? It would be a better work of art, if anything.