Hollywood's Racial Catch-22

ByABC News
September 26, 2006, 10:18 PM

Sep. 27, 2006 -- -- Hollywood likes to paint different groups with broad strokes.

Southerners are backward. Priests are pedophiles. Mexicans are lazy. Italians have links to the Mob.

Few groups with as long a history in this country as Asian-Americans have been portrayed in such a limited variety of roles: The kung fu fighter. The studious nerd. The mercenary businessman. The "Dragon Lady." The prostitute.

In his new documentary, "The Slanted Screen," writer/producer/director Jeff Adachi says these narrow screen portrayals are dangerous because they affect the way Asian-Americans are perceived in the real world, shaping and defining their identities.

As part of a John Stossel "20/20" story on Hollywood stereotypes, three of the leading Asian-American actors on TV today -- Daniel Dae Kim, B.D. Wong, and Ming-Na -- agreed to take part so they could set the record straight.

They described how the negative images they saw growing up had affected their lives and careers.

Old School Asian-American Actors

It was meeting the Asian actors of the previous generations, like James Shigeta, one of the first Asian-American male stars in Hollywood, that led Adachi to produce his film.

Adachi told ABC that he made "The Slanted Screen" to tell the story of actors caught "in a perpetual Catch-22."

In the past, Asian actors were only offered demeaning roles, which they had to play if they wanted to pay the rent.

"When they did play those roles, they were ostracized by their own communities."

Asian-Americans have been in films since the industry's birth.

Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa became a star playing a romantic leading man in the silent era.

"He not only starred in silent films, but he had written and directed and produced his own films," Adachi said.

But his success was short-lived.

Hayakawa started his own studio because he was tired of the stereotypical roles he was continually offered, and he eventually left Hollywood to make films overseas.

Hayakawa returned to the United States in the 1940s and played character parts such as the Oscar-nominated role of a Japanese military officer in "Bridge on the River Kwai."