Asian American Male Directors Are Getting More Filmmaking Opportunities … What About Women?

It was 1990 when a lightbulb went off in Christine Swanson’s head—“I can be a filmmaker.”

She was then a timid half-black, half-Korean University of Notre Dame freshman, sitting in a crowded auditorium before a screening of “Do The Right Thing.”

Swanson had come to college in Indiana from her hometown of Detroit determined to find a path to a job with reasonable pay. But her calling was definitely not in the economics classes that she kept failing. Finance wasn’t going to be her meal ticket.

“This major isn’t for me,” she realized, shifting in her seat while the lights dimmed. What, then, was the right thing? The uncertainty swirling in her head stopped as the film started—it was a story about people who looked like her. After the screening, she gasped as the African American filmmaker Spike Lee walked on stage for his Q&A.

“Half the battle is seeing something, doing it and modeling it,” she said about observing the “Do the Right Thing” director in action. “If it was a white filmmaker, I don’t know if I’d have had that attraction or connection to what this profession was.”

“Half of the battle is seeing something, doing it and modeling it,” says television director Christine Swanson. (Photo courtesy of NBC.)

After the film, Swanson talked to Lee, not knowing that he would come back into her life years later, as her directing teacher at New York University’s graduate film school. She attributes much of her success now, with independent films and major television episodes under her belt, to those moments she spent with him.

Like Swanson’s ascent, many women of color had men of color as role models and mentors over the years. Now that more women are emerging as leaders in the industry, gender is becoming more of an important factor in the current discussions about representation in Hollywood.

Now, the needs of other up-and-coming minority groups are also being taken into consideration, like the other half of Swanson’s heritage: Asian Americans.

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After the success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the discussion about representation for Asian Americans is hotter than ever—and perhaps hackneyed, as everyone praises box office successes as the be-all marker of progress.

Asian Americans are in charge of more projects, but are Asian American women able to get as many behind-the-camera opportunities as men? It varies depending on which medium you’re looking at, says Eleanor Ty, an English professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ty has written several books on the Asian American experience, such as “The Politics of the Visible in Asian North American Narratives,” and specifically about the model minority myth and its effects. She said women have been historically denied opportunities to direct films, but television is a different story.

In February, the news broke that directors Jude Weng and Jessica Yu would direct major broadcast network television pilots, becoming the first Asian American women to do so.

Weng, the first Asian American woman to helm a single-camera comedy pilot, is teaming up with the Emmy Award-winning “Rick and Morty” writer Jessica Gao for a yet-to-be-named series for ABC. Yu, on the other hand, is directing the pilot for an NBC drama called “Bluff City Law,” a show centering on lawyers at an elite Memphis firm that takes on controversial landmark civil rights cases.

Though Yu is proud of the fact that she’s the first Asian American woman to direct a major broadcast TV pilot, the moment feels bittersweet. She expected someone else to already have achieved that feat.

“When I saw the article that said I was the first Asian American woman to get the pilot of a dramatic prime time show, I didn’t even realize that I was the first,” she said. “That’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and, ‘Oh, that’s really sad.’ I’m very glad [to be the first], but I do think it’s such a shame that there were opportunities along the way that were not quite as available for others.”

While Yu’s and Weng’s accomplishments in the TV world are big, the timing highlights how Asian American men have been first in attaining behind-the-camera representation until now.

This disparity is especially obvious in the feature film world. Just a year before “Crazy Rich Asians” hit the big screen with director Jon Chu, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative analyzed data on movies released over the last decade. The study found that only 3.2 percent of the 1,223 directors for the 1,100 top films were Asian, which translates to 20 Asian directors on popular movies from 2007 to 2017. Low as those numbers are, even fewer—only two—were Asian women. The male film directors were recognizable names like James Wan, M. Night Shyamalan, Chu and Justin Lin.

While there is no official study on the first Asian American male television directors, James Wong gained influence as a writer and producer on “The X-Files” and co-created the series “Space: Above and Beyond.” Overall, Asian American men have been tapped more often to direct than API women, but why?

One reason may be the social barriers that Asian American female directors would have to overcome based on how they were socialized, Ty said. 

She argued that directing in the industry tends to require a pushy personality, which may conflict with the values that Asian American women may have been raised with. Confucian principles expect women to obey their fathers, husbands and sons. First-generation women might still feel those familial expectations.

“There are remnants of Asian American women being expected to be not as assertive,” she said.“Some of those qualities are what you need in order to have a leading position, especially in film, where you go out and get people to believe in you and give you money. You have to direct people who are sometimes more famous than you, or just have a lot of different personalities, and I think Asian American women traditionally have not been taught to be go-getter leaders.”

Even if an Asian American woman can assert herself as a go-getter, she may still not be taken seriously enough to direct a feature film. The safest bet for them may be in television, which is a lower risk medium for companies with ongoing shows. “It’s easier in TV because it’s less commitment,” Ty said.

“It’s cheaper to produce a pilot, and a network can also cancel it. It’s not as much of an investment as a feature film because of financial costs. Often, there are different directors for each episode, so if a woman is allowed to direct one, it’s less of an investment.”

Many major television studios have also invested in diversity programs to help incubate the next generation of screenwriters and directors. These talent pipeline programs intentionally seek out candidates from various backgrounds to take a shot at sitting in the director’s seat. Many of these programs create a pool of minority directors to draw from that add something different to the industry, said Karen Horne, NBC’s senior vice president of programming, talent development and inclusion. In NBC’s Female Forward and Emerging Director programs, the new directors shadow for a few episodes on a show, and are then guaranteed a shot to direct during the same season.

Often, showrunners and executives ask for the same directors back. Horne said that more interesting stories in television can be told from a different perspective. “[The programs] absolutely help women and ethnically diverse people get entry into where, historically, they haven’t had those abilities to have access to come in and direct episodes,” she said. “We recognize we’re better storytellers when we don’t tell stories through the same lenses. I also believe success begs imitators. When you see an Asian female director having success, that sends a message to other filmmakers out there that they can do this, too.”

Before she made it to directing episodes of “Castle,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “13 Reasons Why,” Yu started in the early 2000s as an apprentice at John Wells Productions in a similar program designed to increase minority representation. She went on to direct three episodes of The West Wing because of it. “I thought, ‘If you screw this up, you’ll never get a chance to direct  TV like this again,’” she said.

Heather Jack, a comedy director, got her start in the television industry when NBC’s Female Forward program landed her an opportunity to direct an episode of the network’s “Superstore.”

Jack, who is of mixed Filipino heritage, originally worked in feature development at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and learned about developing scripts before trying her own hand at it. Before she worked in TV, she attended film school at NYU and screened her first comedy short, “Let’s Not Panic,” at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Jack said she was excited that “Superstore” had a diverse cast in front of and behind the camera—a vastly different experience than what she had had in film. “Being a minority director is hard enough, being a female director is hard enough, and it’s hard to ascribe what’s advancing to any one thing,” she said. “But while we’re getting more advancements for females, we also see more representations of Asians. It’s hard to say, but I do think they’re advancing at the same moment.”

Swanson, who directed episodes of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and CBS’s “FBI,” said she noticed her status as a woman director was better noticed in the world of TV. Television seems to be more welcoming to women of color compared to film, she said. “I always saw myself as a filmmaker who happened to be a woman of color,” Swanson said. “But what I see now is television is increasingly more hungry to have women directing. Think about the influx of TV shows, with more content being created for television than film on new channels like Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon … they didn’t exist before as distribution outlets. But now people are creating more content to fill the needs for shows. A lot of people running these studios are now women, so they’re finally asking, ‘Where are the women directors?’”

Ty said, diversity movements like the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite have contributed to a rise in popularity for female Asian American TV directors. It’s good, even if it’s just the tip of the iceberg for making true progress. “They’re all trying to change the diversity issue in terms of media and Hollywood,”Ty said. “It does raise awareness, but unless they give funds and commit money to training women, it’s hard for women to actually burst through and be successful. Executives have known there’s a diversity problem, and there’s so many groups jostling in America to be heard. Asians are slowly getting involved, but I think we’re just not as outspoken about that. We should be.”

On the feature film front, there is some burgeoning progress and hope for Asian American female directors. Lulu Wang’s movie, “The Farewell,” starring “Crazy Rich Asians” star Awkwafina, received a standing ovation at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and will hit theaters in July. Cathy Yan was tapped to direct the DC Comics-based Birds of Prey, which is set for a February 2020 release date, and Chloe Zao will helm Marvel Studios’ “The Eternals.”

“Being a minority director is hard enough, being a female director is hard enough, and it’s hard to ascribe what’s advancing to any one thing,” Heather Jack, a comedy director who got her start in TV with NBC’s Female Forward program.

Just as Wang’s “Farewell” is based on her own experiences, Swanson has the power to tell stories that are near and dear to her heart. One of her film shorts, “Black Korea,” centers on her and her co-director’s identities as blasian daughters. Drawing from Swanson’s background growing up in Detroit, and the true story of the film’s producer, Patti Kim Gill, “Black Korea” is about a daughter who sets out on a quest to find the Korean mother who abandoned her at age 13. It’s a not-oft told Asian American story that explores Gill’s mother’s complicated, immigrant past, and the difficulties she faced being married to a black man.

“It’s painful on a lot of levels because you’re dealing with issues of identity,” Swanson said. “Inclusion can also [entail] trying to be a part of a community of people who don’t look like you or readily accept you. It’s some of the most powerful work I’ve ever done.” She wants to expand “Black Korea” into either a feature film or, using her background in television directing, distribute it as a limited television series. If it makes it to TV, Swanson hopes its themes will resonate with the mixed Asian American population.

As a storyteller above all else, she’ll work with what she can.

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In the years since she saw Spike Lee stroll across that stage, Swanson has raised four kids, attended graduate film school at New York University and shot movies all around the country. When she looks back at her journey as a director, she sees Lee as a pivotal part of it. Now she wants to pay it forward for other women of color, including Asian Americans.

“It’s a question of opportunity,” she said. “It’s kind of like an apprentice type of thing. Opportunities really should be given to more women of color, so they can not only see it modeled, but have a chance to do it themselves.”

Swanson said she can’t help but feel a responsibility to mentor other women of color since she’s now in a position where she can make a difference. “At that time, I focused on the fact that there was a person telling stories that looked like me,” Swanson said. “That was pivotal, and inspiring for me. What I understand now is a little different. As a woman filmmaker, I feel a responsibility to mentor other women if they want it.


This article appeared in Character Media’s April 2019 issue. Subscribe here.