Ab-Fab. Yellowface and Comedy.

I am pleased that Margaret Cho has taken the heat on this Yellowface thing with AbFab the film. I like her and she has brought the term to a wider audience in UK, who have never heard or thought of such things. Raising the idea that this kind of casting is out of order in a big publicity wave is a great warning shot across the bows for others contemplating it.

Margaret Cho
The brilliant Margaret Cho – I hired her brother Hahn in his first acting job after drama school!

I do, however, think that the role needs to be seen in context before people kick off. Jennifer Saunders (with Dawn French) has been consistently the funniest woman in Britain for 3 decades and never at the expense of minority groups. It would be incredible if she were to slip up now – especially at the expense of East Asians, the most historically under-represented ethnic minority group in Britain.

I went up for Mrs Brown’s Boys-D’ Movie and it was for a Chinese role that was so racist, that I had to mention it at the audition. The dialogue was all, “me no likee” etc.  The casting director told me that it wasn’t meant to be racist, and that it must have only come across like that when reading it because Brendan the writer was dyslexic! We were talking at cross purposes, and my speaking up scuppered my chances of being seen again by this woman … but my warnings must have been heeded because they re-wrote the part to become a white guy who thought he was Chinese for some reason; a clever device, which avoided criticism of racism (and one fewer part for a Chinese actor! Doh!).  It would be incredible that Mrs Brown’s Boys would take steps to avoid being insulting to East Asians and yet Jennifer Saunders would not.

Ab Fab
Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley

I believe it is possible, given Margaret Cho and anyone else complaining has not read the script nor seen the scenes, that Ab Fab’s casting may be similar to that which Mrs Brown’s Boys eventually settled upon.   Or it may be Sacha Baron Cohen-like, which would be 1. funny and 2. not racist, but satirising racism and racism towards East-Asians itself. It could be, for example, that Krankie’s character is not Japanese at all, but that people think she is because she has a stupid fake name.  It then would be a joke on Patsy and Edina for falling for faux-orientalism from an obvious fraudster.

The point is: that casting blackface or yellowface in comedy in itself is not racist, which is what Margaret Cho assumes here.  The best recent example of where it is not is Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder.   This is not racist because the joke is on Downey Jr’s character, who is so up himself that he doesn’t realise how offensive he is being by blacking up.

This is why I have advised Equity to wait before wading in, taking a stance on this film and embarrassing itself.  Equity is now waiting to hear from the film’s producers, which response will be enlightening.

If anyone has earned our comedy trust, it is Jennifer Saunders.  If she lets us down, then it is another matter and I will be at the forefront of giving it both barrels here and via Equity.  Let us wait and see and let Margaret take it in the meantime.