“Olympus Has Fallen” and racial nativism




March 22, 2013

Today is the release date of Olympus Has Fallen, an action movie that unfortunately reflects the Hollywood (and American) stereotype of white nativism: the assumption that American automatically means white.

“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” – Toni Morrison


Pros (sort of):

  • Not everyone in the movie is white.  Actors of color include Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman (third billing) as the Speaker of the House
  • Women play important roles in the White House.  Angela Bassett plays the director of the Secret Service and Melissa Leo plays the “Secretary of Defense who cracks when tortured.” (Maybe not so flattering, since reviewers describe her as “hysterical.”)
  • The director is Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), one of the few big directors of color in Hollywood.
  • The name of the Vice President in the film is “Charlie Rodriguez.”

Cons (critiques?):

  • The First Lady gets fridged so she can be character development for not one but two male characters.
  • Asian American actor Rick Yune plays the film’s “sociopathic monster,” Kang, a “North Korean posing as a South Korean ministerial aide.”  Phil Yu writes: “the plot hangs on the fact that the inscrutable villains disguise themselves as Good Asian Allies — but surprise! Of course, evil all along.”
  • Both Rick Yune and Gerard Butler have terrible accents in this.  Yune is trying to make his American accent sound foreign while Butler is trying his best to sound American and is just kind of growl-mumbling.
  • There are no substantive or patriotic Asian American characters in the film, just the sneaky villains who posed like nice Asians but turned out to be evil.

This is the second “yellow peril” film released within a year to feature white, non-American actors as Big ol’ American Heroes (TM) while casting [Asian] American actors cast as the evil, foreign invaders.


For example, Red Dawn(2012)  features white Australian Chris Hemmsworth as the leader of the American resistance movement.   He faces off against Will Yun Lee, an Asian American actor who plays a villainous North Korean invader.

There’s some sick irony when Hemmsworth declares to the resistance fighters he is leading–including Isabel Lucas, another white Australian actor–that Will Yun Lee’s character and the other Asian American-played North Koreans just don’t appreciate America the way they do:  ”To them, [America] is just a place, but to us, this is our home,” barks Hemmsworth the Australian, describing the bad guys played by the American actors.

In the film Olympus has Fallen, white Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays the heroic ex-Secret Service agent who must save the day from Asian American actor Rick Yune’s duplicitous foreign terrorist.

By following this casting trope, Olympus has Fallen replicates the white nativist “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that “white” is default “American” while “Asian” (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign.

Hollywood is unconstrained in whether or not the American hero needs to be played by an American (a refreshing attitude) with the unspoken caveat that these American heroes must be white.   This is why white British actor Andrew Garfield can be cast as Spider-man from Queens, New York while black American actor Donald Glovercould not even score an audition.   This is why, when Warner Bros. decided to “Americanize” Akira, they made a long list of prospective lead actors– some from the US but many from the UK–all of them were considered appropriate for the Americanization and all of them were white. “Americanizing” the franchise did not mean casting American (including African American, Native American, Japanese American etc.) actors.

Rick Yune was born in Washington D.C.  How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital?  Yet, he is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it.  The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor– because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more “American patriot” than an Asian American actor.