When "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" hits movie theaters on Friday, it has the potential to do more than simply sell tickets at the box office.
The superhero movie, Marvel's first film featuring a predominantly Asian cast, is based on a character from a series of 1970s comic books with prejudiced undertones, screenwriter Dave Callaham told Inverse last month. During the film's production, Callaham said, filmmakers put together a "physical list" of racially charged content they were "looking to destroy" in their production.
"With [the history of] Asian representation in the media, it's not just that we've been invisible for a long time. It's beyond that," Callaham said. "We're the butt of jokes and stereotypes that are damaging."
"Shang-Chi" is the latest Marvel film built to address issues of racial stereotypes and injustice, following the success of 2018's "Black Panther," the highest-grossing movie directed by a Black filmmaker of all time. Other blockbuster films like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "In the Heights" have achieved similar effects in recent years, fueling national conversations around race and identity.
Experts say this is a positive development: Diversity in media can help people use characters and stories on screen to challenge their inherent biases, and explore their own questions around race and identity in their personal and work lives.
The new Marvel film's release coincides with a continued rise of anti-Asian incident reports in the United States, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. The organization released new data last month showing that such physical assaults, vandalism and online hate incidents have all increased in 2021, compared to 2020.
One expert, Stanford University staff psychologist Helen Hsu, notes that representation in Hollywood has improved in recent years — but still has plenty of room to grow. Hsu has served as a mental health expert for Netflix and multiple universities, and spent much of her 20-year career specializing in combating anti-Asian discrimination and bias. She's also a self-described huge comic book fan.
Here, she details why Hollywood is vital to shaping America's point of view on minority communities, and recommends five questions you should ask yourself after watching any movie:
Over the last 10 years, Hsu says, filmmakers and movie studios have noticeably shifted toward telling more diverse stories — and, perhaps more notably, away from stories that could be viewed as tacitly misogynistic, homophobic or racist.
Some attempts have only partially succeeded, she notes. "In the Heights" and "Crazy Rich Asians" both featured "diverse" casts, but faced post-release backlash for a lack of representation in Afro-Latino and Southeast Asian communities, respectively. Disney's live-action version of "Mulan," released in last year, was praised by viewers for its beauty but criticized for inauthentically depicting Chinese culture.
Hsu has yet to see "Shang-Chi," but says that Callaham's comments indicate a "cultural humility" from the filmmakers. That bodes well, she argues: Movies made with cultural humility can help audiences meet characters that challenge their biases, some of which may come from decades of inaccurate portrayals in media.
"For Asians, its about seeing themselves as heroes or attractive," says Hsu. "And for non-Asian Americans, it's about relating to this person who in other media or even life has been seen as this dehumanized other."
A point of comparison, she says: More Americans started supporting marriage equality once they realized that some gay couples seeking unions were their friends and neighbors. Similarly, Hsu notes, films play a role in creating pathways to psychologically identify and better understand different communities, as long as audiences are willing to put in the work.
Entertainment is "ultimately about hearts and minds," Hsu says. "Touching people's hearts and being relatable is how we get over the [mind's] defensiveness and the narrowness."
After watching a movie, Hsu recommends reflecting on questions like:
- What prejudices do I have that the film challenged?
- How have I seen these types of characters portrayed in other films?
- Do I relate to any character or members of the cast?
- Can I identify anyone from the film in my daily life?
- How does this change the way I think or feel?
Like checking for blind spots while driving, Hsu explains, identifying an implicit or unconscious bias can help you fix it. For example, she says, asking these questions after watching "In The Heights" may make you realize that you've mostly seen Latinos on screen as gangsters or servants. Replacing those kinds of negative characterizations with new, positive associations can affect the way you interact with people in your everyday life.
The questions can also help you push past a movie's specific focus, Hsu says: "Be able to say I really liked this movie, and of course, I realize most Asians aren't crazy rich."