Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
It’s 2011 and Hollywood is reviving popular franchises from 20 years ago, including 21 Jump Street.
In the 1987 television series21 Jump Street, a unit of youthful-looking cops worked undercover in schools and colleges to fight crime. Vietnamese American actor Dustin Nguyen (Officer Harry Truman “H.T.” Ioki) and African American actors Holly Robinson Peete (Officer Judith “Judy” Hoffs) and Steven Williams (Captain Adam Fuller) starred alongside then unknown actor Johnny Depp (Officer Tom Hanson) and Peter DeLuise (Officer Doug Penhall.)
In Columbia Pictures’ remake–set to release on March 16th, 2012–Channing Tatum stars as Tom Hanson and Jonah Hill stars as Officer Penhall. Captain Fuller will be played by Ice Cube. But thus far, no African American actress or Asian American actor has been added to the lead cast of Columbia Pictures’s 21 Jump Street (2012).
Although the original 21 Jump Street TV show’s lone female lead, Officer Judy Hoffs, was played by black actress Holly Robinson Peete, the character of Judy Hoffs appears to be absent in the remake. No black actresses have been cast in lead roles in the film, and her character is not in the leaked script. As Blackvoices.com pointed out, there are several established young black actresses who could have played the role or similar roles.
Left: Holly Robinson Peete in 21 Jump Street Right: Actress Brie Larson, the female lead in the remake.
Between 1987 and 1991, Holly Robinson Peete starred in 98 episodes of 21 Jump Street, more than any other lead actor on the show. (Robinson Peete also sang the show’s theme song.) Given the lack of available opportunities for African American women in Hollywood, 21 Jump Street would have been an excellent opportunity to feature a woman of color in a lead role. Instead, the lead female character in the film is now a high school student named “Molly,” and has been cast with a white actress, Brie Larson.
“With the lack of lead roles afforded to black actresses, this would be a great opportunity for someone to be highlighted in a big studio film.” – Wilson Morales, Blackvoices.com
The character Officer H.T. Ioki, originated by Dustin Nguyen, has not been cast and does not appear to be in the adaptation, although the leaked script included the character in two small scenes. In the early 1990s, the character of Officer Ioki was a groundbreaking representation of a Vietnamese American character on mainstream television.
“[Dustin Nguyen] was unique at that time. It was a role that simply presented an Asian American male as a nonstereotypical Asian, and a role that wasn’t emasculated. His career, by and large, has been one of roles that more or less defied stereotypes.” – Glen Mimura, professor of film and media studies at UC Irvine
The leaked script, which is likely an early draft, does call for some actors of color, but aside from the Police Captain and some of the bit-role police officers, the roles are either stereotypical (e.g. Mexican gangsters, Indian science geek) or non-speaking roles. These roles are not comparable to the major roles Dustin Nguyen and Holly Robinson Peete played in the television series.
Given the diversity in the original series, the absence of characters of color in the remake is jarring, especially since American high schools and police forces are far more diverse now than it back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even if the production has chosen to remove the two minority Jump Street officers from the story, there was certainly an opportunity to cast actors of color as other lead characters in the film, such as the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District high school that the Hanson-Penhall duo will be infiltrating. (In 2009, only 9% of LAUSD students were white.)
It’s discouraging that actors of color had a better chance of starring on 21 Jump Street twenty years ago than they do today. Maybe the actors for these roles will be cast in coming weeks before the film goes into production? Fingers crossed. In the mean time, here’s the current line up on the film’s IMDB page.