Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

More interesting than the actual movie itself is the somewhat muted controversy surrounding the casting of this film ‘21’. This film is loosely based on a book by Ben Mezrich titled ‘Bringing Down the House’, a title that couldn’t be used for the movie since Queen Latifah’s ‘mammy’ movie a few years back had already snatched up that title. I am completely unfamiliar with the book and the history behind the story, so I go see the movie, judge it for what it is, that being a run of the mill, uninspiring, easily forgetful piece of entertainment, and get set to churn out a run of the mill, uninspiring, easily forgetful review. Then in the comments on the IMDB I see accusations that this film is ‘racist’. Being African American I naturally equate this to my own people and experiences while thinking about this movie. The sole African American character in this film was Lawrence Fishburne and as far I could tell there were no issues or stereotypes with his character, and I’m fairly race sensitive so if I don’t see any issues, there usually aren’t any. But there are other races in this country other than black and white, though my late historian mother would argue this point, with her arguments based on generally accepted government census data and inform me that there are only different cultures within the two races, but that’s a discussion for another day. In the original book the principle characters were all Asian American but in the movie the principles are mostly white though the team did consist of two Asian American characters, and this omission has some in the Asian community quite upset.

In this film Jim Sturgess assumes the role of Ben Campbell who is about to graduate from MIT and has dreams of Harvard Med but is facing the roadblock of 300 large in tuition fees, which the poor working class genius doesn’t have. His math professor, Dr. Rosa (Kevin Spacey), observes the young man’s genius with numbers and invites him to join his little private club of highly organized Blackjack counters who take weekend trips

to Vegas, clean out the house and jet on back to Boston. One of the members of this team is pretty girl Jill (Kate Bosworth) who will serve as our female of interest. Fishburne plays security chief Cole Williams whose old school surveillance techniques are being fazed out by some new fangled software, but software can’t pick up the subtle cues of tracking Blackjack card counters the way Williams can and my goodness does Mr. Williams hate card counters.

The story behind ‘21’ is about as routine as it gets as we observe Ben getting all high and mighty with his new lifestyle, big winnings and whatnot, forgets about his geeky friends who have been with him since he just a baby geek, gets the girl, loses the girl, upsets the boss, falls hard and eventually enacts his revenge. There’s nothing unique or special in ‘21’ in its narrative, style or presentation but it is serviceable entertainment, moves along at a decent pace and because of the heavy marketing that Sony has put behind this movie it should make a few bucks in the process.

So the question in this completely run of the mill film is why did the powers behind it choose to ‘whitewash’ the book that this was based on, so to speak? It is curious but I recently just finished viewing a documentary on Asians in American cinema called ‘The Slanted Screen’ which takes on just this issue in a more thorough and complete way that I could ever hope to, and is highly recommended viewing. But still the question remains. I suppose the argument could be that there’s not an Asian star big enough to play the lead in this film, but then who in the hell is Jim Sturgess? As of this writing he’s just another young actor and he certainly didn’t bring anything spectacular to the role of Ben Campbell that makes one sit up and take note and though he could very well be ‘the next big thing’, but as of today we’re not talking about Will Smith, Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCarprio here. For instance I see no particular reason why actor Aaron Yoo, who played one of the Asian characters on the team, couldn’t have stepped into the lead role and the film probably wouldn’t have been any better or worse, In fact I’m more familiar with Yoo because of his work in ‘Disturbia’ than Sturgess anyway. However if Aaron Yoo does step in as the lead then does that mean that Kate Bosworth has to be replaced as well? I have no problems watching some Asian dude doing a love scene with a high profile blonde actress, but it would appear some executives at Sony do, or more precisely, they think that you would have a problem with it. So if we make Bosworth’s character Asian, and of course we would to make Ben Campbell’s mom, played quite capably by actress Helen Carey Asian, then all of the sudden I guess we would have an ‘Asian’ film. Of course it’s not an ‘Asian’ film as the movie wouldn’t changed in the least but I guess Sony wouldn’t have been so keen to run the mega ads for this film were the principles in this movie anything other than white.

So would ‘21’ be number one at the Box Office, as it is as of this writing, with Asian characters as the lead actors, even leaving Kevin Spacey in his role though I believe he was Asian in real life as well? Unfortunately we have no concrete answer for that but people who know the movie industry far better than I do have said quite loudly that the answer is ‘NO!’ Personally I would like to think that the majority America isn’t so backwards that it would opt NOT to see a film, one that was given the same push that ‘21’ was given, just because it’s star is of Asian descent. I would LIKE to think that.

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