Hollywood Uses Darren Criss’ Biracial Heritage To Show The Privilege Of Passing As White In A Notoriously Racist Industry
In Netflix’s Hollywood, Raymond Ansley (Darren Criss) has a mission: To get Ace Studios to greenlight Angel of Shanghai. It’s the film, Raymond hopes, that will thrust Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) into the well-deserved spotlight, following years of dreams crushed by a racist studio system. In real life, as in Hollywood, Wong was passed over for the lead role in Pearl S. Buck’s China-set adaptation of The Good Earth — a part white actress Luise Rainer performed in yellowface, and ultimately won the Oscar for, in 1938.
There’s a reason Raymond has his heart set on casting Wong: Raymond’s mother is from the Philippines, and it’s important to him to see Asian people on the big screen.
The difference is that while Wong cannot hide her ethnicity, Raymond can,. That affords him opportunities that many Asian-American people — and other minorities who cannot pass as white — do not have. In Hollywood, Raymond strategically chooses to whom he discloses his heritage. If it’s not advantageous for Raymond to do so, he’s okay with letting the powers that be assume he’s the typical white man. For Raymond, “passing” is a way to get in the door and kick it down for other minorities — albeit it means going along with a problematic system in the first place.
Criss is also of Filipino descent but, in his career, has portrayed characters who are not Asian-American, from Glee’s Blaine Anderson to Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. He was cast for the first time as a Filipino American in American Crime Story’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace, where he portrayed Versace’s murderer Andrew Cunanan. Criss acknowledged that being a white-passing biracial man made his careereasier to navigate in a 2018 interview with Vulture about his American Crime Story role.
“I have the luxury of being half-white and looking more Caucasian, so it doesn’t weigh on my conscience as much, like, ‘Ugh, why aren’t there more roles?’” Criss told the outlet. He added that it would be “unfair,” and like “reaching for the minority card on a college application” to identify as Asian-American. The answer isn’t far from one Raymond would likely give in Hollywood.
In September of 2018, Criss became the first Filipino-American to win an Emmy in the acting category. Later, he became the first Filipino actor to win a Golden Globe when he took home the trophy in January of 2019. Upon winning, Criss acknowledged his heritage as one of his “favorite things” about himself.
In a recent interview with People for Hollywood, Criss admitted he never thought too much about his biracial identity, until he was confronted with what it meant to be “white-passing” in America.
“[White-passing is] not even a term I heard of until the past two years,” he told the outlet. “When people have a say in who you are — people you don’t even know — it makes you rethink what your balance is. Something you’ve had down your whole life. It’s a tricky cocktail in America. Anyone who is biracial can attest to this: No matter how much or how little they look like their respective mix, it’s a constant work in progress.”
In Hollywood, Raymond’s duality is presented as advantageous to his entertainment career — he makes it a point to cast his talented and ambitious girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier) a Black actress relegated to stereotypical roles, in his first big picture. From Criss’ perspective, it also is advantageous for him in real life.
The only way to combat a racist system is to speak out and encourage diverse casting. Hollywood may need to take a cue from Murphy’s rose-colored revision.