Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park made a huge statement about Hollywood diversity last week when it was reported they would be exiting CBS' Hawaii Five-0 over a dispute about money.
This wasn't a typical industry trade story about stars wanting more cash, though. Kim and Park apparently wanted to be paid the same as the cop show's other two top stars, Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. The difference is that O'Loughlin and Caan are white; Kim and Park are Asian-American.
"The path to equality is rarely easy," Kim said on his Facebook page. "But I hope you can be excited for the future."
Longtime critics of Hollywood's diversity problem described the departure of two top stars on a primetime show over race, ethnicity and pay as a major moment in the struggle for fair media representation. After all, the program is set in a state where Asian-Americans, combined with native Hawaiians and other Asian Pacific Islanders, compose a vast majority of the population. And Kim and Grace are most certainly giving up a major payday to make these headlines.
"It's a big deal," says entertainment law attorney Daniel M. Mayeda, a longtime board member of East West Players, which bills itself as the nation's premier Asian-American theater. "On my social media feeds, people are saying, 'Boycott.'"
The departure brings into focus another aspect of the film and television industry's decades-long resistance to diversity: pay. While year after year critics have focused on the lack of Asian-American, African-American and Latino bodies on sets across Los Angeles County, where whites compose a little more than a quarter of the population, Kim's and Park's stand highlights that even when minorities make it in Hollywood, they're rarely granted the kind of privilege afforded Anglo actors.
The move also means a show set in a primarily Asian-American and Asian Pacific Islander state lacks any Asian stars. Actor Masi Oka quietly left the program in January. "This production has no affinity for the people of Hawaii or for Asian Pacific Islanders," says Guy Aoki, founder of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans. Without Kim and Park, "It's simply not Hawaii," he says.
"Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are exceptional actors and their departure from Hawaii Five-0 is truly unfortunate," Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian-American Media, said via email. "Now more than ever, we need more equity and diversity that truly represents the American experience in front of and behind the camera."
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The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, released in February, found that Asian-Americans got only 4 percent of scripted broadcast TV roles examined. Los Angeles County is more than 15 percent Asian. The longtime lead author of that report, UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, said the impact of the departure of Kim and Park could hinge on their star power.
"I'm not a regular viewer of Hawaii Five-0, but if the importance of Kim’s and Park’s roles on the show is comparable to those of their white counterparts, and if the white counterparts are paid significantly more, then, yes, I think you could say there is a pay equity issue here," Hunt said via email. "Overall, we know there exist pay gaps throughout the Hollywood industry for people of color and women — in front of and behind the camera. That these two actors publicly quit roles on a prominent television show over such a pay gap shines necessary light on this issue."
His research has repeatedly found that, at least when it comes to top-grossing films, the more diverse productions are, the more money they tend to make. Aoki of the Media Action Network says he tried to drive that point home in past meetings with Five-0's producers and with CBS executives — until, he says, he did notice a change for the better in recent seasons. Asian-American extras were once used as criminals who were found dead or killed off in the early episodes of the show, which was revived in 2010. In recent seasons, there have been more recurring, noncriminal roles for people of Asian descent, he says. But the loss of Kim and Grace, who brought with them true star power, is a real setback, he says.
"Hawaii Five-0 has always had a difficult time reflecting Hawaii," Aoki says. "Now they've gone from three top Asian-American cast members to zero in five months. The struggle continues."