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Asian and Pacific Islanders Remain Largely Invisible In Popular Film, Study Shows

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18:  Actor Dwayne Johnson (L) and Simone Alexandra Johnson attend the People's Choice Awards 2017 at Microsoft Theater on January 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for People's Choice Awards)
Christopher Polk
Actor Dwayne Johnson (L) and Simone Alexandra Johnson attend the People's Choice Awards 2017 at Microsoft Theater on January 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

When Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson debuted his Hollywood persona in World Wrestling Entertainment in 2003, he was two years removed from his first successful protagonist role in "The Scorpion King" and on the heels of more film success with roles in "The Rundown" and "Walking Tall."

When Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson debuted his Hollywood persona in World Wrestling Entertainment in 2003, he was two years removed from his first successful protagonist role in "The Scorpion King" and on the heels of more film success with roles in "The Rundown" and "Walking Tall." 

Little did anyone foresee that "Hollywood" Rock would buoy the overall representation for Asian and Pacific Islanders in popular film for the next 20 years.

Last week, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report documenting the prevalence of Asian and Pacific Islanders both on-and off-screen across the top-grossing films each year from 2007 to 2019.  Of the 1,300 films examined, only 44 featured API actors playing lead roles, nearly a third of which were played by Johnson. 

The report offers more staggering statistics:

  • In 2019, over a quarter of API characters in the top-grossing films died. Most died by drowning, explosions, stabbing or suicides

  • Of the over 51,000 speaking characters in the 1,300 films examined, only 6% were Asian, Asian American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders

  • Only 50 of the 1,447 directors in the 1,300 films examined were of API heritage.

  • In 2019, 67% of API characters played stereotyped roles


The release of this report comes at a time of rising anti-Asian hate crimes nationally, and the authors of the report believe the portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders in mass media contributes to that. Today on FilmWeek, we delve into the study's findings and discuss the history of API filmmakers and actors in Hollywood.

Guests: 

Nancy Wang Yuen, professor of sociology at Biola University in La Mirada; she is co-author of “The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders Across 1,300 Popular Films”; she tweets @

Justin Chang, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Fresh Air; he tweets

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