Game Changers: Eddie Huang on getting Asian Americans 'out of the Ice Age' when it comes to representation

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between Good Will Hunting, the 1997 drama that essentially introduced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to the world, and Boogie, the directorial debut of restaurateur-turned-filmmaker Eddie Huang.

The former followed an underachieving blue-collar math savant (Damon) who taps into his potential after he befriends an MIT professor (Robin Williams). The latter centers around a Chinese-American high school basketball player (Taylor Takahashi) battling expectations that he’ll dominate his New York City competition and earn a Division I scholarship.

Both are, however, coming-of-age stories spliced with shades of J.D. Salinger. And Hunting, as it turns out, was profoundly influential on Huang, who opened the popular hip-hop-themed Taiwanese NYC eatery Baohaus in 2009 and whose 2013 memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, inspired the long-running ABC sitcom of the same name.

“One of my favorite films of all time is Good Will Hunting. It’s not my favorite film, but I would say it’s the most formative film for me,” Huang, the 39-year-old son of Taiwanese immigrants, tells Yahoo Entertainment in our newest installment of Game Changers (watch above). “I grew up in a home with a lot of violence, that’s well documented in Fresh Off the Boat. But when I saw Good Will Hunting, it just made me feel less of an alien.”

In Good Will Hunting, it’s ultimately revealed that the title character’s anger issues — he’s arrested for attacking a cop in the film’s early moments — stem from physical abuse at the hand of his father. Takahashi’s Alfred Chin, aka Boogie, also deals with parents — sticking it out in an unhappy marriage for their son’s sake — prone to violence.

“I just said to myself, ‘I can talk about this,’” Huang recalls. “‘And one day, I would love to make another film that could make another film feel less alien as well.’ And that film is Boogie.

“It’s not me as a director like, ‘Oh, I love this genre of coming-of-age.’ I just had a very specific goal to tell a story about growing up in a family with quite a bit of violence, and a family trying to make sense and reconcile a very East Asian way of life, a very Confucian family unit in America. Because that is a very difficult transition. You couldn’t be further apart, and you couldn’t be more alien to each other than a Chinese family and an American family.”

Pop Smoke and Eddie Huang on the set of
Pop Smoke and Eddie Huang on the set of Boogie. (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features)

The story’s basketball elements were inspired not only by Huang’s love for the sport (he’s a die-hard New York Knicks fan), but his own experience playing games with his father while growing up in Orlando, which Huang implies turned rough.

“When Americans and my neighbors would see what was going on with me and my dad, [they thought it was] insane, ‘How could they be parenting like this?,’” Huang says. “I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, this can happen because we are so sure that our parents love us. And that is the Asian part of this story, the foundational layer, there is love assumed in that. I feel that might be the most Asian part of it: We may not tell each other much, we may not hug each other much, but the love can be assumed from our actions.”

Huang points to the significance of Boogie releasing during a time in which hate crimes against Asian Americans have dramatically spiked in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now Asians, we’re under attack, physically,” he says. “And so it’s a time to stand up for ourselves, stand up for Asian culture. I made this film in a place when I wanted to encourage Asians to step outside of our silos and experience other cultures. And right now I would say it’s important to step out of our silos and reach out to our allies, ask for help, and form those bonds. Because those bonds are the ones that will protect us. It is very important that we do not isolate in this country and we participate in this American experiment. Because it is the greatest experiment running in the world.”

With Boogie, there is a heavy influence of African American and hip-hop culture, which Huang has long tapped into — and was also inspired by the involvement of late rapper-turned-actor Pop Smoke, who costars as Alfred’s cross-city rival Monk. (At one point Huang changed course on the film’s original '90s-era rap soundtrack, pivoting instead to Pop Smoke’s contemporary “Brooklyn drill” sound.) Alfred also dates a Black classmate (Taylour Paige) in the story.

It’s a touch of the multiculturalism that Huang promises to bring to all his work.

“The stories I’m writing, they’re always gonna have Asian leads and Asian characters, but I also want to continue to have Black leads and Latino leads, gay leads, all those things. Because that is the world that I live in. Those are my friends. Those are the people surrounding me. Those are the people who give me strength and power and make me question things.

Fresh Off the Boat, Baohaus, those were completely to get Asian America out of the Ice Age. We had no representation when I came around. Baohaus was opened in ’09. And then Fresh Off the Boat came out in ’13. And you look at the progress that’s happened since I kicked that door down. And now there are a lot of Asian people speaking and it’s really good, and that snowball is rolling and getting bigger. And it allows me to step to the side a little bit and say, ‘Look, I would like to make more intersectional work. I would like to make work that has space for all Americans that still has a very strong East Asian spine.’ Because that is who I am, that will always be who I am, and I’m very proud of it. But I do believe in the universality of East Asian culture, that’s what I hope to bring.”

Boogie is now playing in theaters (get your tickets at Atom Tickets).

Watch Eddie Huang talk about the late Pop Smoke:

Videos produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo

Read more on Yahoo Entertainment: