Cross Country Checkup

Randy Boyagoda on Crazy Rich Asians and the first time he identified with a film character

As Checkup prepares for its discussion on representation in Hollywood, we spoke to Checkup guest host Randy Boyagoda about the characters he saw onscreen, and who he first identified with.

The author steps into the Checkup hosting chair this week to discuss diversity in TV and the movies

Randy Boyagoda is the author of Governor of the Northern Province, which was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Chris Donovan)

The hype around Crazy Rich Asians is unmistakable. It's the first all-Asian movie to hit number one in North America on its opening weekend.

The film, based on Kevin Kwan's novel of the same of name, is being celebrated as a cultural moment for its achievement in representation. The story follows an American-born Chinese professor accompanying her boyfriend home to Singapore for a wedding. But her world turns upside down when she discovers he's the beloved heir of one of the country's most esteemed families.

But while many are celebrating the movie, it has also generated some criticism. Some say the film's focus on Singapore's Chinese majority overlooks those of Indian and Malay heritage. Others have said that the praise surrounding Crazy Rich Asians' diverse casting ignores the contributions made by South Asian stars.

That's why this week on Cross Country Checkup, we're opening the lines to hear your stories about the first time you felt represented on screen in TV or film.  Was the character that you identified with accurate, or was it a stereotype?

Randy Boyagoda, author of five books, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated Governor of the Northern Province, will be in the Checkup host chair this Sunday. We called him up to start the conversation.

You saw Crazy Rich Asians for the first time this week. What did you think of it?

I enjoyed it. I found it entertaining, and then I also found it in some ways, instructive. Instructive in that, I watched it aware of how popular it's become and how it's become a conversation piece about identification on and off the screen.

What I was sensing was that the kinds of identification in the movie were in some ways universal. Everyone has some version of family pressure about who to marry and meeting new people.

But speaking more directly to our topic and Cross Country Checkup this week, I think the interesting point here is that Crazy Rich Asians, like a movie like Black Panther, provides a story in which the main characters and the kinds of success and attention they enjoy, are all within a minority context. That probably is what makes it most interesting. The hero in Black Panther is black. The main characters in Crazy Rich Asians are all Asian.

Michelle Yeoh, from left, Henry Golding and Constance Wu in a scene from the film Crazy Rich Asians. (Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

The question we're asking this week is: when was the first time you identified with a character in a film or TV show? Was there a particular character that you saw yourself in when you were young?

One of the most memorable examples of unwelcome identification that I had as a kid was growing up in Oshawa in the 1980s and it was Halloween.

For Halloween that year, it was the year after Return of the Jedi had come out. My mom responded to my really intense desire to be a Star Wars character by buying me an Admiral Ackbar costume. Now to those that may not remember, Admiral Akbar was some kind of alien good guy. But with his name and his complexion in the demographics of the 1980s Star Wars movies, he was the ethnic guy.

I can remember being annoyed and frustrated because here's Halloween. You can be, in a sense, anyone you want to be because you're behind a mask and I still got to be the ethnic guy. So, I can remember that being a moment where I was frustrated by the presumptions of identification between minority characters on and off the screen.

Randy Boyagoda said the first time he identified with a character on film was Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi. (LucasFilm)

In terms of more contemporary stories, are there certain characters that you see yourself in?

I think that's more of something that's happening these days.

One example of a movie from a few years ago where I really noticed positive identification was Bend it Like Beckham, which is a movie about a South Asian family in London and the younger daughter wants to play soccer [and] the parents have mixed feelings about this.

I think what really made it interesting was not seeing the movie on my own, but seeing it with one of my sisters and my mother. It was seeing it in that context that led us to identify with some of the family dynamics on the screen. We did so with a certain amount of self critique in a comical way. But the more I reflected on this topic, the more I realize what you notice in a movie depends not only on your age at the time, but who you're watching it with.

I saw Crazy Rich Asians with my wife. I think I probably would've identified differently with characters in that movie if I'd gone into that with my mother or with my sister because it changes the conversations you have about the movie. It changes your awareness of what the people around you are noticing about themselves or you in the movie.

Randy Boyagoda says a film he identified with in more recent years was Bend It Like Beckham. (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

You have been thinking a lot about how your children are represented on screen. How have they responded to the movies that you watch?

The movie that comes to mind for us is Hidden Figures. I actually wrote an essay for the Globe and Mail about the way my daughters responded to that movie about African-American women involved as mathematicians in the early days of the space program.

What's interesting for me is that my daughters seem to be identifying [with it] more along the lines of gender than race or ethnicity. We all happily watch the Marvel superhero movies and other superhero movies, but the one that they will watch over and over and over again is Wonder Woman.

I think part of it is it's an entertaining and well done action movie. But I think part of it is the way that movie really foregrounds a female hero in a completely positive and strong light rather than just simply as a kind of accessory to the alpha males running around blowing up stuff. I think that speaks in a lot of ways too to how kids today find themselves in movies.

On thinking about how his own children are reflected in Hollywood, Boyagoda said his daughters responded well to Hidden Figures. (Fox)

Now as a novelist, how do you approach diversity in the characters you write?

I'm thinking right now about my novel which comes out in September. It's called Original Prin. It's a novel about a South Asian man and his family in contemporary Toronto.

What I reflect on is it's the first of my novels where ethnic identity [and] racial identity is not one of the driving features. It's part of the novel.

But one of the things that I find interesting about contemporary fiction is that if you can read a story about a contemporary bourgeois or middle class family, we don't presume they're white people for some reason. And if they're not white people, then automatically it has to be some kind of ethnic story about the homeland.

So with my new novel, one way that I think I'm trying to address the question of diversity and inclusivity is to give the main characters a ethnic or minority background, but not make that the point of the novel [and] not make that the point of their story. There's more to them than the colour of their skin.

Written by Jason Vermes and Samantha Lui. This Q&A with Randy Boyagoda has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.