When Independence Day debuted in 1996, it was rife with American symbolism: a group of unexpected heroes required to save the world from an alien invasion, with the greatest American symbol – the president of the United States – leading the world to victory. The movie was an international success, grossing some 817 million USD worldwide and becoming the most highest-grossing film of 1996. The movie was widely celebrated for its diversity as a black stripper, a Jewish scientist, and a family living in a trailer-park all got a chance to become American heroes. In fact, the movie forgot just one thing – the rest of the world. While the United States government makes a plan to defeat the alien invasion, other world leaders were portrayed passively awaiting America's orders.
Diversity in the US film industry is generally on the rise, with more and more films featuring Americans of African, Latino, and Asian descent. Yet this diversity is broadly "American", and Hollywood still has very few realistic foreign roles or accurately depicting foreign countries. It would not be surprising or uncommon to see a Korean character in a movie speak Chinese, or an Arab character speaking Hebrew. As long as the actor "looks" the part, the authenticity of his origins and the foreign language he speaks are irrelevant. This extends to portrayals of "exotic" locations such as Asia or Africa, where Hollywood continues to generate themes of war-stricken or impoverished regions. Such was the case in the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon, which depicted Shanghai as a water town with floating markets; or Tropic Thunder, the 2008 comedy that portrayed Vietnam as an endless forest infested with Viet Cong-looking drug lords. While some of these scenes may certainly be exaggerated for comic effect, these stereotypes feed American misperceptions of foreign countries.
And then came China. Hollywood has been eyeballing Chinese audiences for quite some time, seeing the massive financial potential of 1.3 billion Chinese viewers as their golden ticket. Box office revenues in the US and Canada have plunged by 80 million USD over the past decade, while the Chinese market has continually grown. It's no wonder, then, that Hollywood started reaching out to Chinese audiences with movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Mission Impossible filmed in China. Others, such as Gravity and The Martian, show China actively assisting (and sometimes rescuing) the US in space missions. Some of these changes are also the result of Chinese companies' growing investments in Hollywood, ones that resulted in massive deals, such as the purchase of AMC and Legendary Pictures Production by Dalian Wanda Group. Other companies, like Paramount and MGM, were in the midst of negotiations when new regulations for Chinese investments in US film and media industries were put into place in August. That ship had already sailed, however – Hollywood is experiencing a wave of all things China.
While these changes may be motivated by purely economical considerations, increasing portrayals of China in American films should be a wake-up call for the US: It's time for a change.
American viewers have also noted the changes in the industry. Claims of China "taking over" the film industry are not uncommon in local newspapers, mirroring the deep-seated fears America possesses of losing its cultural dominance. Last year, 16 members of the United States Congress signed a letter warning of Chinese investments in the US, claiming they may pose as a "national security threat" and raising concerns that China will "exert propaganda controls on American media".
Yet few have discussed the positive changes Hollywood’s shift towards China has brought: American movies are finally getting China right. Hollywood cannot afford to show distorted images of Chinese locations or let a Chinese character speak Korean, not when the Chinese audience is so valuable. It also cannot afford to keep ignoring popular Chinese actors, ones that statistically have more fans than all the A-Listers of Hollywood combined. Diversity in Hollywood has always reached only as far as its financial worth to the studios – and now it's finally worth it. Chinese audiences have influenced Hollywood do what it should have done a long time ago – show real diversity.
While these changes may be motivated by purely economical considerations, increasing portrayals of China in American films should be a wake-up call for the US: It's time for a change. Just like China deserves better representation in Hollywood, so do countries elsewhere in Asia, Africa, the Middle-East, and South America. If America is to preserve its "soft power" dominance, its film industry cannot allow continued sloppy and one-dimensional representations of a large percentage of the planet. There is a big world outside of the US, and it’s time for Hollywood to explore it.
Coming full circle, the year 2016 brought return of Independence Day in a much anticipated sequel. The new disaster movie saw America facing the alien threat once again. The film features Chinese products and language throughout, as well as two Chinese fighter pilots, Jiang Lao and Rain Lao (played by Singaporean actor Ng Chin Han and Chinese actress Angelababy respectively). Meanwhile, an African warlord is still depicted entertaining his American guests in a stereotypically tribal-looking Africa. We won’t be seeing major changes in Hollywood's representation of other countries anytime soon – at least not until their money turns the tide. Hollywood still has a long way before it can claim the flag of diversity, but with a little more foreign investment – it just might happen.