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. Continue reading