Why Doesn’t Keanu Reeves Play More Hapas?

Check out this trailer for a new Keanu Reeves vehicle, based (believe it or not) on an actual Japanese legend, and due out this coming December.
 

 
The movie may or, perhaps more likely, may not turn out to be good. What caught our attention about this trailer though, much more than the low-budget CGI or action film clichés, was that first line, when the man with the full-body tattoo asks for a “half-breed.” The half-breed is Keanu’s character, and given the feudal Japanese setting it’s an obvious assumption that he’s playing what might today be more politely referred to as a hapa.
 
Happily, this is not an instance of the common and uncomfortable practice of casting white actors as people of color, a modern phenomenon uncomfortably analogous to historic traditions like blackface and yellowface. Keanu Reeves really is a hapa – his father was of native Hawaiian and Chinese descent. There has been plenty of commentary decrying the tendency to give similar roles to white actors. For us, 47 Ronin raises a different question. Why is it so unusual for a hapa actor like Reeves to play a hapa character?
 

A quick consideration of Reeves’ filmography suggests that 47 Ronin is in fact the exception and not the rule. (Disclaimer: this author’s knowledge of Keanu Reeves’ career may be slightly better than average, but is by no means exhaustive.) A quick visit to IMDB reveals a filmography overwhelmingly dominated by identifiably European surnames like Sutton and O’Neill. Obviously this doesn’t preclude the possibility of those characters having Asian heritage, but in this author’s experience none of those movies makes explicit reference to Reeves’ character being of mixed race – and in Western media racelessness translates directly to whiteness. Supporting that interpretation are a fair number of films in which Reeves plays characters who are explicitly white – Bram Stoker’s Dracula comes to mind as an obvious example, in which Keanu’s 18th century British lawyer is, presumably, not of mixed race. Thus in the vast majority of Reeves’ work his hapa racial identity is either ignored or actively erased.
 

 
It’s worth noting that such fluidity would be impossible for an actor who was half-black. One of the most basic differences between the experience of mixed race people of African American descent and those of Asian descent is neatly illustrated by Keanu Reeves’ filmography.
 
It’s also worth asking why Hollywood, so happy to cast white people as people of color, seems so reluctant to cast a hapa as a hapa. This author’s guess is that both stem from the same motivation. Too often the conventional wisdom that even increasingly diverse audiences can only truly empathize with white characters seems to be the guiding light behind such decision making. The bottom line is that Keanu Reeves doesn’t play many hapa characters because there are hardly any hapa roles out there for him to play. The same, obviously and unfortunately, could be said of just about any other minority group. Maybe 47 Ronin is a sign that as America’s audiences become more diverse, its movies are starting to as well.
 
Photo from Business Insider.

1 Comment
  1. thank you thank you thank you. this half breed thoroughly enjoyed your article. you nailed it! viva half-breeds we should all unite!!!

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