It has not exactly gone unreported that the casting of 21 is racist. (One widely linked critique is here. I found another here but I feel like there must be a whole body of WOC coverage of this story that I missed. If I did, my mistake and I will gladly update if anyone brings it to my attention.) Since I read the light but fun book on which it is based, Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House,” I thought I should add my voice.
It’s not just that the film took a bunch of really interesting Asian characters and made them white. That’s the traditional Hollywood racism. This is much worse. Some folks may have already read elsewhere that in Mezrich’s book, that the team was majority Asian worked to their advantage, so it was important to the plot. But it’s even worse than that.
In the book, Mezrich reports the main character’s own view of the interplay of racist stereotypes and his livelihood: that dealers and pit bosses and casino security are creatures of stereotypes and assumptions, so they only see what they believe. They believe only middle-aged white men count cards; they believe that Asians are all basically compulsive gamblers. In order for the team to effectively make money from the numerical advantage that a rich deck offers the player during a blackjack game, the players had to be able to bet heavily while the shoe was full of face cards; the kind of betting that might raise suspicion. But, Mezrich tells us, in the experiences of this team of Asian professional counters, the casino workers don’t see anything unusual about college-aged Asian males betting like they have all the money in the world to lose. Because their lens is racist.
The book doesn’t put a lot of weight on this, but it is a plot element; and more than that, it’s a critique. So Hollywood, by casting the Asian characters as white, has also erased a critique of racism. So that’s, to my mind, several levels of not okay.
Update: Kai, in comments, graciously provided links to work on this story by Jenn Fang of reappropriate and a discussion on NPR. I am particularly remiss in having missed Jenn’s piece; I read her blog occasionally and I thought I searched there but I somehow missed this. I’ll pull out this portion from a post that, if folks have a minute, they ought to read in full:
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.
Finally, in response to Jenn’s use of the word “steal,” I will note that I disagree. Mezrich is clear in the book that the tactics — counting cards, doing it as a team and passing signals about the state of the decks, are within the letter of the law, at least in Nevada. The casinos could bar them temporarily or permanently for any reason or no reason, but could not prosecute. For that reason, they resorted to dirtier tactics, but I won’t post spoilers. The book is a fun read.
FWIW, also, Jenn makes clear that Mezrich himself understood that this was wrong and said so.
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