This post contains discussion of sexual assault and grooming of a minor.
The Oscar nominations dropped this week, and May December is in the running for Best Original Screenplay. Many social media users are upset over Charles Melton's supposed snub, but I want to focus on something else: why did he land the role in the first place?
May December is loosely inspired by real-life events: Mary Kay Letourneau was a 34-year-old teacher when she raped 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. Like the movie, their first child was born while she was in prison, and they married after she was released.
While I love Charles as much as the next gal, his casting as Joe Yoo (the character inspired by Vili) is indicative of a larger issue in Hollywood: the erasure of Pacific Islanders. Yes, the film was only partially influenced by the true story, but the real-life victim, Vili, is Samoan.
So why did May December strip this character of Pacific Islander identity in favor of making him Korean? They were happy to take inspiration from a Samoan victim's story — apparently without his permission — but didn't want to cast a Pacific Islander? With all the talk about Charles' performance and awards nominations, it could've been an excellent opportunity to platform new PI talent and highlight PI issues.
This isn't the first time in recent years that an Asian actor was cast to portray a person/character who was supposed to be Pacific Islander. Chinese actor Peyton Elizabeth Lee played Lahela "Doogie" Kameāloha in Disney's Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. And it seems like Filipino actor Sydney Agudong — who will play Nani in the live-action remake of Lilo & Stitch — doesn't have any Polynesian ancestry. When her casting sparked intense backlash, internet sleuths found no indication that she is Native Hawaiian in any databases, newspaper clippings, etc. Despite being called out across social media, Sydney never made a statement to confirm her identity.
Now, I'm not saying all the blame lies at the actors' feet. Asians remain underrepresented in media, and it's important that their TV/movie presence grows to reflect the world we live in. However, I wonder if the US term AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) has confused people into thinking we are all the same and therefore interchangeable. Even the Hollywood Reporter article that shared Vili's statement, says: "Both men are Asian/Pacific Islander." But we are two separate groups, and conflating us is part of the problem.
Hollywood is notorious for mining the Pacific Islands for profit without giving us the opportunities or acknowledgment that we deserve. Just look at The White Lotus: the show used stolen Hawaiian land as the backdrop to make social commentary while the Native Hawaiian characters were one-dimensional plot devices without their own storylines and agency. From Kai stealing for Paula's arc to the men who invited Quinn to leave his world behind, Native Hawaiian characters existed merely in service to the star characters.
So, what is the solution here? I don't pretend to have all the answers, but casting actual Pacific Islanders to play PI roles would be a great start. Ensure that PI characters in TV/movies are not simply there to further the storylines of others. Hire PIs behind the camera, too: writers, producers, casting agents, and directors. As the saying goes, Indigenous people are the original storytellers — so let us tell our stories.
Note: BuzzFeed reached out to Sydney Agudong's reps for comment. We'll update you if she responds.