Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Last summer, Racebending.com staffers attended a promotional screening for MGM’s remake of the film Red Dawn. Now that the Red Dawn trailer has been released in theaters, we’re posting our review. This review is going to be based on the version of the film we saw in summer 2011.
Red Dawn (2012) is a remake of the film by the same name released in 1984 during the Cold War. In the original film, the Soviet Union, Cubans, and Nicaraguans invade American soil. A group of American high school students, calling themselves the “Wolverines” (their high school mascot) resist the Soviet-led occupation using guerilla warfare tactics. The plot of Red Dawn (2012) is similar, but this time the invaders are “North Korean.”
The version of the film we got to see looked finalized, but again, we saw this film over a year before it’s planned release, back in summer 2011. Ostensibly, this screening was held to gauge whether audiences would be receptive to changes that the studio made to preemptively appease investors in China. Using CGI, the film’s Chinese invasion was changed to be a North Korean invasion. To the filmmakers, the Chinese and North Koreans were interchangable.
As far as we could tell from the version we were screened, the transition from Chinese villains to North Korean villains was complete. The lines spoken by Korean American actor Will Yun Lee’s Chinese villain, General Lo, were dubbed over from Mandarin to Korean. The expository prologue had been seemingly edited to explain a North Korean invasion, and signs and flags were changed from PRC to DPRK.
How was the movie? Well, the good news is that, Red Dawn has more Asian faces and Asian American actors in it than any other film coming out this Thanksgiving weekend. They’re just depicting yellow peril invaders! (Hooray?)
It seemed that most people at our screening were enjoying themselves, cheering and whooping for our country, America. (Loud cheers during the scene where the reporter says that the blue states have all surrendered and the red state gun owners are the only ones left to resist the North Korean invasion.) Other people at the screening took to Twitter, upset at how characters of color were treated in the film.
Likely because the depiction of characters of color in this film is godawful.
The main character of the film is Matt Eckert, a white all-American football player played woodenly by a doleful Josh Peck. His older brother, Jed, is a second Gulf War veteran played by white Australian actor Chris Hemmsworth (now famous for his leading role in Marvel’s Thor). After seeing their father senselessly executed by General Lo (Will Yun Lee), the two brothers and their friends hide out in the woods, learn how to fight back in a montage sequence, and begin to take on the invaders head on.
Charitably, the film includes characters of color as residents of Spokane, including the father of Connor Cruise’s character, Daryl: the city’s mayor is portrayed by an actor of color, Michael Beach The mayor is depicted as wimping out and traitorously appeasing the North Korean invaders. In addition to the brothers’ classmates/friends, the group is joined by two out-of-towner siblings, Julie (Alyssa Diaz) and Greg (Julian Alcaraz). Yay…diversity?
Except, uh…All of the Wolverines of color die except for one. (And even that is left kind of nebulous because he is left by the others to die alone due to his own careless stupidity, even though white characters are equally careless and never face that consequence.) Contrast that to how all of the white Wolverines survive to the end of the film, except for one, even though the group started out with more white characters than characters of color. The problem with this film is that although characters of color share the screen with characters who are white, they are never depicted as equally as competent or equally as important as the white characters.
The two women characters who are white double as love interests for the two brothers. Characters of color are not depicted as romantic and one even dies while rescuing the white male lead’s love interest for the sake of teaching the white dude a Very Important Lesson about leadership and sacrifice. The first Wolverine to die is, of course, a character of color.
The white characters and characters of color are put in equally dangerous situations. It’s just that the story bullets just happen to hit brown kids, and the character development lines just happen to go to the white kids. (Cue white kids sad about dead brown kids–builds character!–and then quickly getting over it. In contrast, the death of the one white character is designed to propel character development of other white characters, and move the audience in a way that the death of the
cannon fodder characters of color do not.)
The foreign invaders are played by American actors, while two of the focal American heroes are depicted by Australians.
One rousing sentiment from the Wolverines is this universalized concept that modern Americans have “inherited our freedoms” and now must fight for those freedoms since America is under attack. Watching the film, there’s this sinking realization that when the film is talking about America, they aren’t referring to people in America who are already fighting for freedoms and have had to actively continue to fight for them. During a speech explaining a difference between real Americans and the Asian invaders, one of the white male leads says, “To them this is just a place, but to us, THIS IS OUR HOME.” (Meanwhile, somewhere invisible, the people of the Spokan tribe in this fictional story makes sad faces. I guess it is asking too much for reflection on how what is happening to the white heroes of Spokane was perpetrated on the Native Americans who called Spokane home, by the homesteader ancestors of the white heroes.)
But that is what Red Dawn depicts–a weird historical reversal–and it is just so damn awkward. The white heroes of Washington State are upset that their land–their home–is being taken over by invaders. And the contrast to the actual history of Asians in Washington State is also quite stark.
In Red Dawn, Washington patriots must defend their home by driving out Asian invaders– an unrealistic scenario that has never occurred in history. The historic scenario was essentially the exact opposite: The citizens of Washington, driven by racism, invaded and burned down entire Asian American communities and drove Asian Americans from their homes and out of the State, forcing them onto trains to Oregon.
In the late 1800s, discrimination against Asians in Washington State was particularly pronounced; there were more than 150 documented mob attacks against Chinese communities and settlers throughout North America. (This ethnic cleansing tactic, practiced in places including Los Angeles and Seattle, was dubbed “The Tacoma Method” after the Tacoma Riot of 1885 that inspired anti-Chinatown lynching movements across the Pacific Coast.)
So it’s more than a little ironic to have a film set in Washington State depicting Asian people oppressing white Washington State residents (and their people of color friends/acquaintances.)
It’s also weird that although the Red Dawn remake is set in Spokane, WA and depicts African American residents of Spokane, it doesn’t depict any Asian or Latino Spokane residents (there are more Latinos and Asians in Spokane than African Americans, so you’d think they’d be impacted, too…) The State of Washington is pretty diverse and has a long Asian American history. Washington State also boasts the first governor of a state in the Continental United States of Asian descent, and the only Chinese American in history to serve as a governor– Governor Gary Locke, a third generation Chinese American who served two terms between 1997 and 2004. (Locke is now the U.S. Ambassador to China under the Obama administration.) Seven percent of Washington is Asian American.
The film is framed in non-Asian versus Asian terms, with the exception of a US Marine side character, played by Kenneth Choi, who tells the heroes that he is from San Diego and does some Korean translation for the group. The character’s name is “Smith,” uh, because he is the sole Asian good guy? (Choi played a similar role in Captain America: The First Avenger, except that time his Asian American soldier was from Fresno. Also, that scene was set in the 1940s, not the 2010s.)
[There were plans during the beginning of production to include a Chinese American Wolverine, Erica Yu, "the 17-year-old knockout Asian American captain of the cheerleading squad." She would have been the Asian American love interest of the white male lead (a damsel in distress character that was ultimately played by white Australian actress Isabel Lucas.) Apparently, earlier drafts included a plot point where Asian Americans residents of Spokane were placed in internment camps.]
We had heard a rumor from a source who had worked on the film remake that the production had difficulty finding extras to depict the Chinese invaders, to the point where people working on the production got so desperate for Asian faces that they asked their Asian American friends who did not work in the movie industry if they were interested in being in the movie. That’s understandable, since there’s more than a whiff of “yellow peril” and “perpetual foreigner” in the film, reinforcing some of the negative stereotypes that affect Asian Americans today. For example, a 2009 survey of the “general population” of the United States found that 45% of Americans believe Asian Americans are more loyal to their countries of ancestry than to the U.S., up from 37% in the 2001 survey and 20% believe Asian Americans do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind. This is worrisome because at least 28% of the general population of the United States reports rarely or never interacting with Asian Americans–so there are no real life interactions to counter the stereotypes presented Red Dawn (2012).
The original Red Dawn included scenes that somewhat humanize the Soviet invaders (at least there are scenes shown where they talk about their families and display a sense of humor.) The heroes in the original film have scenes where they reflect on whether or not they are so different from the invaders they are fighting, asking “what’s the difference between us and them?” as they work to protect their moral identities while protecting American soil. A villain in the original film, Colonel Bella, also recognizes commonalities between the two opposing sides (in response to the American youth’s guerrilla tactics, he says “I have seen this before. But these are my men!”)
This is not the case in Red Dawn: Yellow Peril Edition, where the Korean née Chinese soldiers are depicted more like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies. They remain mostly faceless and interchangable except for the actor depicting the inscrutable lead villain, and the heroes never question whether they might be falling into a moral grey area. The remake simply isn’t as reflective s the original film; it instead bludgeons the audience with jingoistic moral simplicity.
So, uh, the Red Dawn remake in a nutshell: If you are brown, and North Korea ever invades, and your white friends decide to launch a guerrilla resistance movement, DO NOT JOIN THEM. They will get you killed. Because the Red Dawn remake really manages to off every single brown kid in the movie.
EDIT: Since this article was written, the poster for Red Dawn has been released. It features the Wolverine heroes of the film, and of course, the only Wolverines depicted on the poster are white.