Tom Jolliffe looks at the rise of Awkwafina…
Born Nora Lum, New Yorker Awkwafina has had something of a meteoric rise of late. She first come to attention as an internet hip-hop sensation with the comedy rap My Vag (Her vag is Godfather 1, and your vag is Godfather 3). At that juncture in time where the majority of Hollywood projects were seemingly intent on white-washed casting, it didn’t seem likely that Lum would become a prominent trail blazer for aspiring Asian-American artists demanding a platform. It may not have been entirely intentional to take on such a mantle, but regardless, at this current time, where Awkwafina is an indie cinema darling, and attached to several potentially billion dollar franchise pictures, she finds herself with a weight on her shoulders (and the exceptional talent to carry it).
Ultimately success breeds success. Not just for the successful person, but the demographics waiting in their slipstreams. If someone as exceptionally talented as Lupita Nyong’o is going to forward the cause (and thus demand) for black female actors, then Awkwafina will be a key figurehead in East Asian artists taking centre stage in Hollywood (as opposed to Scarlett Johansson say). So how did it go from comedy Vag raps to being to being in Marvel’s Phase Four (in the much anticipated Shang-Chi), Disney’s The Little Mermaid remake, and in close proximity to Box office behemoth Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: The Next Level?
Lum of distinct individuality and obvious talent (particularly comic) took every moment of screen time afforded to her to stand out and steal scenes. Now perennially it’s not been uncommon for BAME artists to be forever relegated to below the top five in the cast list, get ‘the quirky’ scenes and make a decent career out of it. Ask Ken Jeong. It inevitably becomes type casting. That sadly will always be inescapable for BAME artists that roles tailored to those stereotypes will be what predominantly ends up hitting their script tray/audition calendar. Still, Awkwafina steals scenes in Bad Neighbours 2 (okay, it was an awful film, but she stands out as a positive) and the enjoyable if numbingly conventional star vehicle Ocean’s Eight; there’s a host of A-list personalities in a feminist driven caper, but it’s the relatively unknown (at the time) Awkwafina who stands out once more.
Crazy Rich Asians was the potential milestone film. It’s that watermark moment where the box office takings appear to confirm that audiences will go to a film, that even in the exotic setting of Singapore, and a cast of East Asian artists, doesn’t need to throw in a token white hero or conduit to connect the white demographic to what’s on screen. It took a while to figure by execs, and indeed they figured this with Black Panther too, but there’s more to box office than white folks’ money, and even more surprisingly, yes, we will watch a film that doesn’t have a central white focal point. Again, whilst there was stellar work all round, and a particularly magnificent Michelle Yeoh (as per normal), Awkwafina was barnstorming.
So we know she’s funny. We know she’s magnetic. In comedic terms could she be more than the scene stealing support artist? Can she go from being Rick Moranis to being erm… Bill Murray (if we use the 80’s comedy scale)?? Evidently yes. Taking a brave but seemingly sensible step of connecting herself to an indie passion project, Awkwafina gets her first leading role in The Farewell. A critical smash. Talk of awards, nay, even Oscars is already rife in the wake of its success. A small limited opening, before widening in early August, the audience has been there and the expansion promises a significant return for the low budget film (written and directed by Lulu Wang).
As someone identifying as Asian American, Awkwafina (and indeed writer/director Wang) has the background to fit the protagonist. A film of cultural clash. The feeling of a generation caught right between two cultures and not feeling entirely accepted by either. The conflict there, combined with the background of impending loss of a beloved matriarch, offers masses of scope for emotional depth for the right actress. For Awkwafina to throw herself so headily into such a role is brave. Yes to an extent with Indie, if the gamble doesn’t work the film drifts out of consciousness pretty quickly, but the film has been successful and Awkwafina has received copious amounts of acclaim. It promises to be a key piece of Asian-American cinema and a potential launching pad for other creators to tell their stories. Wang has already secured her next gig with sci-fi film Children of the New World.
With the big boys in Hollywood beginning to view projects with more equality and diversity, things are as good as they’ve ever been for under represented groups. It’s an upward curve. Audiences are responding which is essential, as ultimately those who’ve striven for that chance and felt too many doors were closed will now find some opening. If the idea of the megastar seems to be in decline (in favour of concept) then that former notion of putting all your chips on a ‘star’ name is gone now because lets face it, most of those super stars have historically been white male. That audiences don’t stay intensely loyal to those stars any more suggests that the tried and tested white male hero doesn’t draw the punters like they used to. There aren’t too many individuals who carry guaranteed box office with them. Dwayne Johnson is one of a select few, maybe even a selection of one. Keanu Reeves might be John Wick, slaying the box office, but outside of those many of his other leading projects have been straight to video.
So for the most part you can’t bank on the Hollywood male hero any more? There’s no excuse not to attempt to be diverse and thus in turn we’re not beginning to see the studios doing so. After all, if Crazy Rich Asians represented a tried and tested genre with a cultural/representational ‘twist’ then the success showed that audiences took to it.
At the moment Awkwafina can do no wrong. She seems to get a new big gig every week but the most interesting next steps will be to see if she can maintain a good balance between these huge films and more intimate indie work like The Farewell. There’s a little bit of pressure on her now, to maintain, but long may the success continue and in doing so maintain the growing opportunities for BAME artists hoping for their own break.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/