For those too young to know this history or those wanting to take a walk down memory lane, here are the 25 “yellow face” film performances (so no David Carradine in Kung Fu unless the long-rumored film version gets made) that have arguably had the most impact on our cultural landscape.
20 | Short Circuit (1986) & Short Circuit 2 (1988)
Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya
Generation Xers and Yers may hold fond memories of Short Circuit, the story of a military robot who thinks he’s human after being struck by lightning, but it’s hard to watch Stevens’ caricature of an Indian scientist deliver lines like “Time funs when you’re having fly!” in an awful Indian accent.
And what of the 1988 sequel where Stevens is promoted to carry the film?
What can you say about a movie that makes you miss Steve Guttenberg?
19 | The Party (1968)
Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi
The first in what would be an ongoing collaboration between Sellers and director Blake Edwards, Sellers plays a bumbling Indian actor who is fired from the set of a costume epic only to be mistakenly invited to an important Hollywood party. The film and Sellers are not without their charms, especially if you’re a fan of the ’60s movies spoofed in the Austin Powers series, but this set the blueprint for the modern portrayal of Indians as the accented comedic relief, usually portrayed by Caucasians, in films (see previous entry) and TV (see Apu in The Simpsons).
18 | Norbit (2007)
Eddie Murphy as Mr. Wong
Eddie Murphy once said his dream was to play Kato in the big-screen version of The Green Hornet, so it’s little surprise that he would appear as the Asian surrogate father of Norbit, the title character (also played by Murphy). Fortunately, Rick Baker’s amazing makeup avoids any ugly clichés, but Wong’s still the stereotypical wise “Oriental” of yore. Lines like “Black people run fast, but problems run faster” may be hipper and funnier then Charlie Chan’s fortune cookie dialogue, but it doesn’t make it any less problematic coming from an African American man in “yellow face.”
17 | Gunga Din (1939)
Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din
In this rollicking adventure film in the tradition of Indiana Jones and loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling poem, Cary Grant stars as a British soldier in India trying to suppress the Thuggee uprising, and Jaffe plays his Indian sidekick in makeup that’s a few shades darker than any real Indian. Like many other Hollywood productions involving Caucasian protagonists fighting against the foreign enemy, Gunga Din represents the good person of color who heroically sacrifices his own life to save his Caucasian friends (for a recent example of this, see The Kingdom).
16 | The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Nils Asther as General Yen
Before he created an idealized America in classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, director Frank Capra made his early bid for critical acclaim with what he considered his art film. Barbara Stanwyck is Megan, an American newly arrived in China, who finds herself kidnapped and held captive by the warlord Yen. Capra raises provocative questions as Megan finds herself sexually attracted to Yen, but the film ultimately reverts to business as usual after Yen is left defeated and dead, while the heroine runs off to find happiness in the arms of her Caucasian fiancé.