On The Farewell, Cultural Appropriation, and Awkwafina’s Problematic Career
By ALLISON CAO ‘22
Released on July 12, 2019, Lulu Wang’s movie The Farewell centers around Billi, a young Chinese-American writer, and her response to her grandmother Nai Nai’s terminal cancer. Acting on the traditional Chinese belief that awareness of an illness only worsens it, Billi’s family decides to conceal the cancer from Nai Nai. Billi accedes to their decision, but her anguish and outrage at doing so defines the central conflict of The Farewell: a clash between Chinese and American values. Upon watching the film, I was amazed by how this conflict was intensified by the nuanced performance of lead actress Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina; Lum’s portrayal of Billi struck me as complex, relatable, and, most importantly, heartbreakingly faithful to the struggles of Chinese-American identity. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered Lum’s sordid history of cultural appropriation.
Before her role in The Farewell, Lum starred as Goh Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians, a film that landed her a career breakthrough. A brash member of the Singaporean elite, Peik Lin provides much of the film’s comedic relief—a stark contrast to The Farewell’s more reserved Billi. However, the most jarring difference between Peik Lin and Billi does not lie in their personalities; instead, it reveals itself when each character opens her mouth. Although, when playing Billi, Lum speaks with a generic American accent, when playing Peik Lin she uses an exaggerated ‘blaccent’—a term for a non-black person using African-American vernacular (AAVE).
The ‘blaccent’ is only the most recent example of Lum’s problematic approach to comedy. As I went through Lum’s career history, it became apparent to me that she consciously adopts a blaccent in her comedic roles (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians) and drops it completely in her serious roles (Netflix’s documentary Bad Rap, The Farewell). Lum’s appropriation of the ‘blaccent’ reveals her inherent privilege; while native speakers of AAVE experience prejudice on the basis of their language, Lum profits from an imitation of the same vernacular.
In fact, a specific word exists for the transformation of African-American identity into a caricature: minstrel. Originating in the 1800s, the minstrel show was a type of performance mocking black identity and culture, arguably the first large-scale, commercialized instance of cultural appropriation in the United States. Today, Lum’s ‘blaccent’ echoes the minstrel show of the American past: Lum takes a characteristic from modern African-American communities and gains success through her cultural thievery. By using the ‘blaccent’, Lum essentially contributes to America’s history of benefiting from the subjugation of black culture.
In a sense, Lum’s appropriation is especially ironic because she is aware that imitating Asian accents represents a cultural violation. In fact, she refuses to “do [Asian] accents…[because they make] a minstrel out of [her] people.” Although Lum refuses to be a perpetrator of Asian cultural appropriation, she appears blind to the hypocrisy of appropriating another culture.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this hypocrisy is the lack of consequences Lum has suffered. On the contrary, her minstrel roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians actually launched her into stardom--she became the second East Asian-American woman to host SNL, and she is set to lead, produce, and write her own show for Comedy Central. Only once was she asked about the controversy surrounding Peik Lin, and she avoided answering the question by “[welcoming] the conversation” around her actions without directly apologizing for them.
Today, Lum is arguably among the most sought-after and prolific young Asians in entertainment, and her rising career cannot be dismissed within the context of the recent surge of Asian representation in Hollywood. However, as long as her popularity continues, Lum stains whichever films she participates in. If she is chosen for a role in any production, the production itself becomes complicit in ignoring her racist career. Especially in The Farewell, a film dedicated to presenting a nuanced and authentic portrayal of Chinese-American identity, Lum’s past appropriation changes the meaning of the film itself.
Looking back on my initial reaction to The Farewell, I feel a sense of betrayal. Initially, the film stood out to me because of how it addressed Chinese-American identity. Now, however, the bitterness of Lum’s legacy will forever impact The Farewell: Billi was torn between Chinese and American cultures, but through her repeated instances of racism, Nora Lum has violated both.