In March, Deadline posted an article headlined “The Year of Ethnic Castings.” Originally subtitled with the laughable prompt “About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?”, the piece (by Nellie Andreeva) touches on what it considers an upswell of nonwhite actors in major roles on TV, particularly breakout actors like Constance Wu in Fresh off the Boat, the first Asian-American-led sitcom in twenty years. The article contains gems like “star names were in demand as usual, as were hot young guys and girls and occasional foreigners with that ‘sparkle,’” or “Uncle Buck and Love Is A Four Letter Word are among several projects where the original white protagonists have been changed to black this season,” with the act-of-God passive voice intact, as if Andreeva woke one morning to find the rolling fields of spec scripts had suffered diversity blight and ruined the white actor harvest.
Overall, the tone of the piece is that particular, determined blandness on an incendiary topic that readers tend to be able to identify as written largely for the hits, regardless of backlash. As it happens, the backlash was so unanimous and widespread that if the editors indeed published it as clickbait, they have since repented; editor-in-chief Mike Fleming Jr. posted an apology which itself asked more questions than it answered about race in Hollywood—such as when he explained that, while its use was insensitive in the article, “the word ‘ethnic’ is commonly used by casting agents.”
And regardless of attempts to make it sound like the encroachment of actors of color into traditionally white spaces is somehow a feasible vector on which to position an argument, it will surprise no one to learn Hollywood has never been that way. It will also surprise no one that Hollywood has, nonetheless, always felt as though it was being encroached upon. (By 1920, Oscar Micheaux, Hollywood’s first notable African-American director of feature films, had made Within Our Gates—a pointed response to Birth of a Nation and a star vehicle for stage actress Evelyn Preer. Chicago’s Board of Censors objected to scenes of rape and lynching, some cities only showed modified cuts, and several cities refused to screen the film altogether.) In fact, non-whiteness is so often coded as the Other that it becomes subtly reinforced as a speculative element; a person of color appearing at all begins to suggest something supernatural—both within the text, and as evidence that a person of color made it in front of the camera at all.
Well aware of both those undercurrents was Anna May Wong. One of Hollywood’s first movie stars of color, her career was sometimes rocky but often bold (she started her own short-lived production company at the age of 19, and would leave Hollywood in the late 1920s out of frustration with their casting practices; she then had to be wooed back). Most of Wong’s parts, stereotypical or otherwise, traded on the understanding of Hollywood’s exoticism alongside the meta-supernatural feeling that movie stars lend their projects. Still, her career looked fixedly into the future; her first starring role was in 1922, in the Chinese Madam Butterfly tale The Toll of the Sea, the first Hollywood Technicolor film, and a decade later, she was one of the few silent stars who transitioned seamlessly to talkies.(There’s also a dry sense of humor in taking a role like 1933’s A Study in Scarlet, filmed at the height of her billing power but using her for less than ten minutes of screen time. Wong seems to know it, too, since in the moment her villainy is revealed, the look she casts behind her isn't aimed at her man-at-arms so much as it is at the camera, a grim glee that silently skewers anyone in the audience who didn’t expect her to be guilty. Given that her presence is treated as a fantasy element within the actual mystery, both for her ethnicity and her stardom, it does seem like an inside joke; she’s guilty because there was no chance she wouldn’t be.)
Wong’s first leading role—and one that instantly cemented an image she struggled to shed for the rest of her career—was as a nameless “Mongol slave” in The Thief of Bagdad. Her screen presence got its due in reviews for the film, even though her role is often glossed over as “treacherous slave” rather than what she actually was: a palace agent in service of the Mongol emperor. (It’s sad to see such dedicated espionage dismissed.) It was one of several Orientalist dragon-lady roles she took throughout her career, either by contract or necessity (perhaps most famously in Daughter of the Dragon), and The Thief of Bagdad remains a pointed example of a nearly transformative Otherness. In stark contrast to the languid white princess in her filmy silks, Wong creeps across the palace rooms with the stylized hunch of a shadow puppet, emphasized by a barely-there costume so stiffly awkward it seems more set dressing than clothing, and director Raoul Walsh gives her enough cunning close-ups to remind viewers that she has a hidden agenda and is never to be trusted.
It’s a subtle form of a very unsubtle racism that cast a shadow over Wong’s career: Besides the general dearth of non-stereotypical roles available to her, anti-miscegenation laws would prevent Wong from starring in many of the leading roles her talent deserved. Her most famous role is also her most pointed—that of nightclub dancer Shosho in Piccadilly. Her presence uneasily straddles those dual metatextual lines of the Other; her dancing is “exotic,” and therefore supernaturally seductive (driving men to violent passion), but much of the film deals with the nature of the racism Shosho faces. In one of the film’s most notable scenes, Shosho bewitches the entire Piccadilly nightclub with her dancing on a spare, almost surreal stage, stirring the passions of two men and earning a thunderous ovation from the audience. (If the choreography itself seems a little last-minute or lackadaisical, it only adds to Wong’s charm.) In the other pivotal scene, Shosho and club owner Wilmont (Jameson Jacobs) go to a nightclub—shot in stylishly crowded naturalism in a deliberate contrast to Shosho’s separateness—where Shosho uneasily watches a black man ejected from the premises for dancing with a white woman. Her protestations about the unfairness of it fall on deaf ears, and Shosho turns her face away from the conflict, terrified of being seen. Shosho and Wilmont arrange an assignation for later that night, but only after they're at a safe distance from the club, and it’s sealed only with a handclasp; the law prevented Wong from kissing a white man.
Wong would run into this problem several times in her career, often as a direct result of whitewashing: if a white man had been cast in an Asian lead role, Wong wasn’t allowed to star opposite him. Her skill as an actress was widely acknowledged, but in such cases it rarely availed her. She was famously refused the role of O-lan in 1937’s The Good Earth and offered the part of the villainous Lotus instead. (Her response minced no words: “You’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” It would sound like a product of its time, to anyone who hasn’t seen The Last Airbender.)
Luckily, Wong still managed a few roles that both acknowledged her heritage and offered enough complexity to make an impression. The Chinese government didn’t look kindly on her role as courtesan Hui Fei in Shanghai Express, in which she murders the revolutionary general who rapes her—himself half-Chinese, because apparently for Hui Fei to escape with her racial reputation intact, someone has to pay. The role (in which Wong smolders so much opposite Marlene Dietrich that they fielded rumors of an off-screen relationship for years) was a rare one for Wong: she speaks to her countrymen as a matter of course rather than code, she doesn’t flinch from fighting her own battles, and she oozes so much modern-woman ennui it threatens to overflow their cabin. And despite the camera’s fondness for Dietrich’s cheekbones, Wong rates equal sympathy from the lens; her close-ups are as bathed with light as Dietrich’s own, and, in an awkward moment, the camera lingers on her determined sidling out of frame with amusement. It allows her so much personality that the camera seems to suggest her as the film’s most interesting character and not merely a stand-in for the Otherness of her origin. Though, ultimately, Othered it is; to be of color in Hollywood means that even on a train in China, Hui Fei is painted as the outsider.
To be so Othered that one’s mere presence reads as a circumstance beyond the plausible is as familiar a dramatic beat now as it was in 1929. Deadline’s suggestion of “ethnic casting” as a conspiracy against the status quo would be laughable if it didn’t seem to echo the unspoken feelings of the institution that recently put out a casting call for white actresses for the lead role in Ghost in the Shell, and that let twenty years go by without an Asian-led sitcom; and, in an era of TV that sees hundreds of pilots a year, even one was enough to catch the eye of Deadline as perhaps too much of a good thing. An entertainment industry with such a narrow scope means that those involved will end up trapped forever in the meta-text of commentary alongside their performances. It's a scope that dooms the actors in its grip to the fate of Piccadilly’s Shosho—not the pulp whodunit, but the moment that posterity has preserved; Shosho on stage at the end of her triumph, all eyes on her, as she stands, stunned and wary, in the glare of the limelight, her hands raised as if in surrender to the dragon lady mythos she already knows she’s going to be assigned.