Aziz Ansari Explores Hollywood’s Diversity Problem In Powerful Essay

11 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race and Hollywood.

“I was also asked to audition for a part in ‘The Martian’ (not Kapoor), but I skimmed the script and — no offense — it seemed like a boring movie about a white guy stuck on Mars for two hours who gets fired up about plants, so it didn’t seem worth taking a break from my own projects. (I’ve heard the film is fantastic.)” Ansari wrote recently in a first-person piece for the New York Times. “The Martian” is one of the few “grown-up” movies of the season that’s dominated the box office (nearly $460 million worldwide) and is also a critical hit, which means it’s now in play as an Oscar contender.

Though Aziz Ansari says his Master of None character Dev is “not quite” semi-autobiographical, it’s easy to see similarities between the comedic actor and his onscreen persona. Not long after “The Martian” debuted, there was some controversy over the decision to cast Chiwetel Ejiofor to play a character named Vincent Kapoor. And the same goes for his TV friends and love interest, who admit they have a lot in common with their characters. “She’s a heightened version of me,” Lena Waithe told EW at the sitcom’s New York premiere Thursday. “She’s very straightforward, a lot like myself, and she loves her friends.” Waithe, who plays Denise on the new Netflix series, acknowledges that her personality helped shape the role. “I don’t think they ever intended her to be African-American. There’s so much that could go wrong: You could end up bored or annoyed with your date, wishing you had stuck with a casual coffee, drinks or dinner.

Either there’s nothing in the pipeline to replace these duds, or we’re reached a stage where studios and producers are thinking more about Netflix, Hulu et al. than winning a Nielsen night. The first time I saw an Indian character in an American movie was “Short Circuit 2,” a 1988 film in which a humanized robot named Johnny 5 goes to New York and bonds with an Indian scientist named Benjamin Jarhvi. But after failing to secure Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who wasn’t available because of commitments to other projects, filmmaker Ridley Scott, ultimately decided to make Kapoor’s character mixed race and rename him him Vincent.

We both talk really fast, we use our hands a lot, we both pay attention to very small, specific things.” Eric Wareheim, Ansari’s self-proclaimed “token white friend” in the series, also has a close relationship with the former Parks and Recreations star. “I’m the only white boy in the room and I feel like it’s based on my real friendship with Aziz,” Wareheim said. Their camaraderie dates back to before Master of None’s inception and relies heavily on a mutual love of food, specifically pasta. “We’re constantly eating,” the 39-year-old comedian said. “Besides the show, the most important thing was ‘Where are we eating for lunch?’ “ For the actress behind Dev’s love interest Rachel, Noël Wells, the most important thing was trying to get into “sexy mode” while filming sex scenes with Ansari. “It was very funny shooting sex scenes and Aziz was kind of being goofy in between takes,” Wells said. “And I was like, ‘But I’m trying to be sexy and you’re being goofy.’ “ Like her character, whose first date with Dev is an overnight trip to Nashville, Wells advocates for unconventional first dates based on firsthand experience. “One of my old college boyfriends, who I dated for two and a half years, our first date was at a strip club,” Wells admitted. “So I think jumping in like that, you get to see what people are made of.”

I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures. When Denise (played by Lena Waithe) suggests that Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Rachel (Noël Wells) fly from New York to Nashville for their first official date, Dev is doubtful. “I dunno — a vacation for a first date?” Dev asks. “Isn’t that kinda nuts?” But Denise is rather convincing: “That’s what’s so great about it,” she says. “Think about it like this: If you do the normal date dinner, then it’s like the next day you’ll be stressing out about ‘When should I text her?’ ‘What’s the next date gonna be?’ This way it’s like 10 dates in a row.” Spoiler alert: Dev and Rachel do end up flying to Nashville for the weekend.

Ansari was expanding on the thinking behind the famous fourth episode of his hit Netflix show “Masters of None,” which scolds modern movies and programs that used white actors in brownface to portray Indian characters. In his Times piece, Ansari extends his thanks to “Parks and Recreation” creator Mike Schur, who cast him as Tom Haverford and thus, provided Ansari with experience that would help him secure his first television show of his own. Some critics have put it in the context of current cable comedy such as Portlandia, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie, but it’s different from all of those. Ansari has jumped full force into the conversation about making television shows and movies more reflective of society, and his advice to those who are already trying is to keep it up, and try harder.

She had a pretty casual approach about it, thinking more “this could be fun — let’s see what happens.” What happened was she got a horrible cold, and her date had little patience for the fact that she wasn’t feeling 100 percent. “I tried to rally as much as I could,” she said, “but I was really sick.” Marathon dates like Dev and Rachel’s fictional one can be a lot of fun, Davis said, but it’s challenging to start a relationship that way. “There’s a reason things happen slower” in real life, Davis said. The current Saturday Night Live cast is talented and versatile, and the show has done well in the past whenever it’s dropped real-life politicians into a sketch (as with Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago). But whatever your political leanings, it was a bad precedent for SNL to give an entire episode over to any person actively campaigning for the presidency — let alone to one who’s made such inflammatory statements about immigrants and women. It comes off as a bit of an overreaction — probably because the revelation makes him realize they’ve taken a huge relationship leap while they barely know each other. “When you’re on a first or second date, you don’t have that mentality of: ‘Let’s work through this together,’ ” Davis said. “Instead you’re trying to have a fun date. The actors looked uncomfortable, as though they were afraid to be too enthusiastic lest that be seen as an endorsement — but also leery of turning on their host. (The lone exception: Michael Che, who’s “Weekend Update” jabs at The Donald made him seem like the only one actively acknowledging the idiocy of this whole stunt.) The episode hit its nadir in an intentionally bad sketch that had Trump “live-tweeting” insults at its participants, in what may have been a meta attempt to explain why everyone on SNL was playing along — but instead read as unfunny and degrading.

If those types of things happen, they seem like boulder in the way of having a good time — it’s something that kind of hinders the date.” If you are bold enough to try a marathon date like Rachel and Dev’s, make sure to schedule some time apart — get coffee with a friend who lives in the city you’re visiting, or just wander on your own for a while. “It just breaks things up a little bit,” she said. “It will renew your energy with each other when you get back together. Stevens sit every morning in a makeup chair and get painted an “Indian color” before going on set and doing his “Indian voice.” As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin, the banker who tricks Johnny 5 into helping him commit a jewel heist. To be honest, there are plenty of clever TV comedies about women and men who’ve gone off the rails on their way to adulthood. (You’re the Worst, for example, has been crushing it this season.) But what really sets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend apart are its musical numbers: twisted pastiches of pop and Broadway, partially penned by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Last week’s episode featured two showstoppers: In “Sex with a Stranger,” Rebecca starts out singing about wanton lust and ends up digressing into STD tests, complaining, “Your balls smell weird.” And then in “Settle for Me,” she does a Fred-and-Ginger routine with her scrappy, charming bartender pal Greg (played by New York stage vet Santino Fontana). Stevens is not a villain, but was, when he took the role, a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time. “Originally, the role of Benjamin was a white grad student, and then the director and co-writer of ‘Short Circuit’ changed the character to Indian,” he told me.

Stevens and asked, “Can you play Indian?” It was 1987, so we were all a little less savvy about the things we were doing that were actually hurtful to large groups of people, and the answer, for a 21-year-old struggling actor, was yes. HBO’s adaptation of the pitch-black British sitcom Getting On made the jump from good to excellent last year, becoming more satirical and screwball as it tackled insurance fraud and institutional entropy at a Long Beach hospital’s geriatric unit. The third and final season picks up the story about eight months later, with the ward’s high-strung director (played by the brilliantly brittle Laurie Metcalf) in danger of being ousted by the scandal. Narayan’s “The Guide” and Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” “I started taking yoga and immersed myself, because I really wanted to be as real as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, her key nurses (Niecy Nash, Alex Borstein, and Mel Rodriguez) hide behind union rules to keep from cleaning up any literal or figurative messes. When Dad asks Dev for help with his iPad, Dev reacts impatiently with, “I’m not your personal computer guy!” and announces he has an appointment to see a movie. The episode’s title — “This Is About Vomit, People” — cuts right to what this show’s really about: the often futile grunt work of medical care, and how bureaucracy keeps those on the frontline from mopping up a pile of puke when they see one. That’s some dark, dark humor there — and a hilarious-but-pointed illustration of how the tools we rely on to help others can become blunt and destructive.

I loved “The Social Network,” but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. Allison Janney has won an Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy for each of the two years that this traditional sitcom been on the air; thanks to this season’s premiere (“Terrorists and Gingerbread”), she may have just locked up her third. But I don’t want to judge them before knowing the full story, especially because I know that both films made at least some attempts to pursue Indian actors. It’s a pleasure to see Danes, away from Homeland, going broad with the humour and slyly mocking the Carrie Mathison character for which she is famous. After a shaky start two years ago, Mom has developed into one of TV’s best comedies — though it doesn’t always get recognized as such, because it’s a traditional three-camera show taped before a studio audience, and doesn’t exactly feel “hip.” But co-creators Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker have been shaking up the form in subtle ways, by telling stories about a mother and daughter (Anna Faris) who are both recovering alcoholics clinging tentatively to their sobriety.

These are characters who are trying to improve themselves, but aren’t anywhere close to where they want or need to be, which sets them apart from all the other quipsters on television who crack jokes from places of relative comfort. The addition of Burstyn to this combustible mix — even for just a guest shot — continues the show’s mission of finding humor and pathos in people who aren’t just broken, but are worried they’ll lose something essential about themselves if they get too healed.

There’s nothing wrong with treating a season of television is like a novel or an epic-length feature film; there’s also something to be said for those who play to the medium’s strengths and continue to make episodes. What’s interesting is that Rachel isn’t a babe Dev lusts after – this is where the series leaves Seinfeld behind – but a funny, warm, independent woman who, very slowly, becomes the woman Dev depends on for fun, warmth and honesty. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix series parcels out sprawling stories about the lives of creative types in the hipper quarters of New York City — in particular Dev, a marginally successful thirtysomething actor who’s painfully aware that the choices he makes in his life could easily become permanent. Like Louie and Girls, the show splits the difference between a sitcom an indie film, creating something that works both as a five-hour narrative and as a batch of winsome stand-alone urban vignettes.

Instead, there’s a thrilling originality at work – a humanity, a humour that, for all its emphasis on thirtysomething singles, feels formidably grown up and wise. Either way, it’s a winner. 2015 may not bring everything that Back to the Future II promised it would: flying cars, self-lacing shoes, we don’t see ’em happening over the next 12 months. (Then again, don’t bet against Nike.) But this year will definitely pack plenty of punch when it comes to cultural happenings. Mad Max will roar back out of the apocalypse while Mad Men rides off into the sunset, rock’s Antichrist Superstar and hip-hop’s Yeezus will rise again.

Training an Indian to do the stunts wasn’t practical, and a stuntman is not mocking Indian people; he’s tricking people into thinking it’s me, a real Indian. (If there is a heartbroken Indian stuntman reading this now: Dude, I’m so sorry, and you really need to get a better stunt agent.) Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents. Sure, things are moving in the right direction with “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low. (The numbers for women are depressing as well.) In 2013, according to a recent report produced by the Ralph J.

Here’s a game to play: When you look at posters for movies or TV shows, see if it makes sense to switch the title to “What’s Gonna Happen to This White Guy?” (“Forrest Gump,” “The Martian,” “Black Mass”) or if there’s a woman in the poster, too, “Are These White People Gonna Have Sex With Each Other?” (“Casablanca,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Notebook”). Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. When we were looking for an Asian actor for “Master of None,” my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: “How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?” After a long hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on “The Walking Dead” and Daniel Dae Kim on “Lost”). Look at “The Terminator”: There had to be someone who heard his name tossed around for the role and thought: Wait, why would the robot have an Austrian accent?

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