Trans-Racialization in “21″

by guest contributor Jenn Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

Six MIT students band together to hoodwink Las Vegas casinos for millions.

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie — and it is. But before Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishbourne were cast in 21, Ben Mezrich wrote a non-fiction book called Bringing Down the House, upon which the film is based. In that book, Mezrich documents the infamous MIT Blackjack team, which was led by Asian American — not White — students.

Although referred to by pseudonyms in the book, it was later revealed that the main characters of Bringing Down the House – Kevin Lewis and Jason Fisher — are former real-life MIT students Jeff Ma and Mike Aponte who are both Asian American men. Jeff Ma has since gone on to start a company based on fantasy sports, while Mike Aponte remains a professional Blackjack player.

Mezrich has criticized the casting of 21, and argued that it plays into fears of the marketability of an all-Asian cast.

During the talk, Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process — though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film’s actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female. Even as Asian actors are entering more mainstream films, such as “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the upcoming “Memoirs of a Geisha,” these stereotypes still exist, Mezrich said.

Mezrich notes that the Asian American identities of these students was critical to the MIT Blackjack team’s strategy. According to Wikipedia:

In the book, Mezrich explicitly states that a young Caucasian betting large amounts of money stands out, while a young Asian or other minority would be less conspicuous.

Perhaps in response to criticisms that 21 was “White-washing” the story, the filmmaker also cast Asian American actors Lisa Lapira and Aaron Yoo in the movie, but they remain secondary characters, distantly-removed from the story of the White male and female protagonists. The casting of Sturgess and Bosworth remains a damning assertion that Asian American faces are simply not “American”-enough to carry a big-budget film like 21. And though the story of the MIT Blackjack team centres on the Asian American identity of the team members, the movie loses its opportunity to explore this reappropriation of stereotypes by real-life Asian American men who used society’s perception of them — for better or for worse — to steal millions from Las Vegas casinos. Instead of exploring this interesting (and arguably empowering) story of racial identity, the movie becomes yet-another “boy-meets-girl” trifle with Asian American characters existing only as props to further a story about White protagonists.

Now, I do want to take a second to note that there’s plenty about 21 and its trans-racial casting to get annoyed about, so there’s no need to get angry about imagined slights. I’ve read arguments that Lisa Lapira’s casting as a secondary role to Jim Sturgess’ lead means that the film will yet again depict an Asian female/White male romantic coupling. But the trailer (and Hollywood formula story-telling) don’t bear that out: clearly Kate Bosworth is Sturgess’ romantic interest in the movie. In criticizing a movie, I think we, as a community, need to remember to consider all the facts and not make any assumptions until we have good solid evidence to back up our assertions. There’s plenty enough in this film to be annoyed at; we don’t need to make anything up.

What bothers me about 21 is the trans-racial casting of the main characters and the sweeping under the rug of Asian American identity politics by a movie based on our community. The treatment of 21 is all the proof I need for my argument that we need more — not less — Asian American filmmakers and actors in Hollywood. The decision to “White-wash” the MIT Blackjack team was fueled not by stereotypes (though the decision certainly perpetuates them), but by concerns of marketability. Mezrich, himself, cites the counter-argument that Better Luck Tomorrow and Memoirs of a Geisha were considered as evidence that an all-Asian casting job could still prove profitable, and yet executives still chose to cast White actors: I think primarily because these films are too few in number. More big-budget films with promising Asian American actors at their helm will demonstrate to Hollywood — better than any angry Internet rambling – that doing an Asian American story and doing it right can promise more money, not less.

Until we, as a community, prioritize Asian American cinema that can cross-over into mainstream Hollywood and earn the big bucks, what happened with the casting and treatment of 21 will continue to happen. And with that, those stereotypes of Asian Americans as emasculated, perpetually foreign, a model minority, or meek and submissive will thrive in an industry that has no reason to believe that casting an Asian American actor to play an Asian American role will produce any increase to the movie’s bottom line.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

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