Commemorating Asian-American Pacific Islander contributions to film and television

Awkwafina in a 2018 portrait – Casi Moss via Wikimedia Commons

The continuing surge in Asian-American hate crimes has sent a clear message to those in the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and reminded many of the dangers of targeted discrimination and systemic oppression faced by the Asian-American community.

     But AAPI Heritage Month is about more than continuing the fight against Asian-American hate. It’s also a time to celebrate the accomplishments, successes, and victories of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, especially in a society that is in many ways built against these communities.

     The AAPI community has always made significant contributions to the film industry. Within the last decade, the status quo of Asian depiction has been slowly dismantled through the continued presence of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in new films. While there is still much to achieve to reach equality and fair depiction for the presence of AAPI figures in film content roles, recent achievements signal a move in the right direction for AAPI representation in the film industry. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, here are some of many AAPI figures ushering in a new era of AAPI depiction on screens across the nation.

Sandra Oh

     Sandra Oh is an Asian-Canadian-American actress best known for her work in long-running television series. The recipient of two Golden Globe Awards and twelve Primetime Emmy nominations, she has solidified herself as a dominant actress known for her vivid emotional depictions and witty, humorous expressions. She is well regarded for her depiction of Dr. Christina Yang in the long-running medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy, as well as her captivating performance as Eve Polastri, a British intelligence officer tasked with finding the assassin Villanelle on Killing Eve. Oh also speaks about Asian-American isolation in the film industry, especially in Hollywood. Most recently, she was heard voicing a passionate speech at a Stop Asian Hate rally this past March.

Hasan Minhaj

Hasan Minhaj hosting an episode of his show, Patriot Act, on May 23, 2018 – Wikimedia Commons

     Hasan Minhaj has built a reputable presence as a comedian, producer, commentator, and television personality. Beginning in stand-up, Minhaj gained notice on Comedy Central’s hit The Daily Show, where he served as a senior correspondent. He would then present his one-man show, entitled Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, in which he described his personal experiences as an Indian-American Muslim and highlighted the immigrant experience in the United States. Following his successes, he would then go on to announce his very own weekly show on Netflix, entitled Patriot Act. Looking into the modern political foreground with a hint of satire, the show concluded this past June.


     An actress, rapper, author, and comedian, Nora Lum, whom many know by her professional name, Awkwafina, has established herself as a multi-faceted artistic talent. Known for her strong supporting movie roles in productions such as Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, she was also awarded a Golden Globe for her featured role in The Farewell, which achieved the highest box office average per screen for the summer of 2019. The film, which also embraces a bilingual and multicultural environment into a plot and emotional-rich film, set her up for revolutions in Asian-Amerian film development, including that of Raya and the Lost Dragon on Disney+, in which Awkwafina is a key voice. Beyond her film triumphs, Awkwafina is also a co-creator, producer, and featured character in Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. She has also released two rap albums. 

Kumail Nanjiani

     An actor, comedian, screenwriter, and podcaster, Kumail Nanjiani is regarded by many for his role on the HBO series Silicon Valley as well as his original film The Big Sick, which was co-written with his wife Emily V. Gordon. Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Nanjiani, who is Pakistani-American, has established himself as a prominent voice for dismantling stereotyping and promoting cultural diversity. His work has set the stage for addressing stigmatization of the South Asian male image, homegrown Islamophobia, and the continuation of judgment regarding interracial relationships.

Auli’i Cravalho

While Auli’i Cravalho may not be a name many recognize upon reading it, but most will recognize this artist’s voice. The native Hawaiian actress and singer is the famed voice of Moana, the animated Disney movie based upon Polynesian, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander influences. In her latest film, All Together Now, she plays the role of a struggling teenager in temporary homelessness. She is widely quoted for her fight in bringing more BIPOC voices to the film industry.

Constance Wu

     Asian-American actress Constance Wu made her breakthrough on the comedy series Fresh Off the Boat, which detailed the family dynamic of life through assimilation into American culture while maintaining pride of their own. Following her role on the revolutionary near-all Asian cast, Wu also centered as the star for Crazy Rich Asians, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, the latter nomination being the first for an Asian-American female in forty years.

As a fighter for diverse representation, [Wu] has called out the systemic biases of having white actors and actresses portray Asian characters.

Beyond her work on films, Wu is known to be a harsh voice for representation and equality on Hollywood sets. As a fighter for diverse representation, she has called out the systemic biases of having white actors and actresses portray Asian characters.

Jon M. Chu

A growing pioneer in film production, Jon M. Chu is a director, screenwriter, and producer, regarded as a visionary for Asian Pacific American inclusion in the film industry. Recently collaborating with Lin Manuel Miranda on the upcoming production of In The Heights, he is best known for his directorial role of Crazy Rich Asians. Released in 2018, the film was the first to feature a primarily all-Asian cast in twenty-five years, and grossed over $230 million globally, making it the highest-earning rom-com of the 2010s. Portraying Asian and Asian-American culture beyond traditional stereotypes, many credits the film with sparking a new wave of Asian American representation in film and television.

Author: Christopher Schwarting '24

Christopher Schwarting has been writing for the Index since 2020 and currently serves as a Managing Editor. His opinion piece "Queen Elizabeth leaves a lasting legacy, but Gen Z must be sure to see it all" received a Silver Key in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.