Is representation all that we need?

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What it means to be Filipino-American today, through the eyes of comedian Jo Koy. Photo courtesy of UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Comedian Jo Koy needs you to know how much it took for him to make his movie.

The mid-budget film “Easter Sunday” is the Filipino-American actor’s dream come true: a showcase of Filipino culture through the lens of Hollywood. Produced by the Steven Spielberg-backed Amblin Entertainment (whose only other producing credits this year are “Jurassic World: Dominion” and "The Fabelmans"), the film is heavily inspired by Jo Koy’s own life. “Easter Sunday” is about a struggling actor named Joe Valencia who has to drive back home to his chaotic Filipino-American family for the holidays. It stars the comedian himself as well as industry veterans singer/actress Tia Carrere (“Lilo and Stitch”) and actor Lou Diamond Phillips (“La Bamba”), two of the most well-known Filipino-American actors today. The movie rightfully claims to be the very first Hollywood-produced film about the interior life of a Filipino family in the United States. It has a 45% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as of writing.

It’s hard to see “Easter Sunday” as something beyond Jo Koy’s desire to be perceived as a disruptor, a man in a class of his own. During his recent Manila press conference to promote the film, Jo Koy emphasizes how groundbreaking “Easter Sunday” has been — no surprise, after he struggled for years to get his stand-up specials mounted on streaming giant Netflix’s platform. Undeterred by the doors shut in his face, the comic decided to fund the filming of “Jo Koy: Live in Seattle” back in 2017 until Netflix eventually bought the special.

“If that didn’t happen, then Steven Spielberg wouldn’t have never seen the second [special, “Comin’ In Hot”]. That’s the one that Steven brought me in for and asked if I had a movie idea, and that’s when I pitched ‘Easter Sunday.’”

Tia Carrere and Lydia Gaston in "Easter Sunday." Photo courtesy of UNIVERSAL PICTURES

It was a golden opportunity for more Asian representation in racist Hollywood. As far as Fil-Ams today are concerned, Jo Koy is their poster boy. The 51-year-old stand-up rose to prominence after his brand of comedy put his loving mother (and her strong Filipino accent) at its core.

That accent is a pivotal plot point in the movie. Fictional Joe is close to bagging a sitcom role, but hesitates over the opportunity because the show wants him to do an “accent,” the very same one Jo Koy himself has used in his own real-life comedy. Most of the Fil-Am actors in the film, especially Lydia Gaston who plays Joe’s mom, actually put on heavy Filipinized accents while speaking in straight English. For a native Filipino speaker, the cadence may come across as clunky, as the dialogue struggles to capture the linguistic nuances of Filipino English.

In “Easter Sunday,” Filipinos are portrayed as monolithic. Everybody loves boxer Manny Pacquiao (his birthday is their ATM pin code) and sings karaoke to de-escalate family dramas. During the press conference, Jo Koy recalls how emotional he became while filming the drawn-out balikbayan box scene. For him, it serves as tangible proof of the Filipino-American’s sense of responsibility.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t understand [the balikbayan box.] Here’s my mom, filling up this box, and I’m like eight years old… [my siblings] and I are all looking at these delicious things going into a box that we wish we were eating,” Jo Koy recalls. “We didn’t understand… like, ‘What are you doing, Mom? Why are you sending that?’ And my mom’s like, ‘Well, they don’t have anything… [And] you get to be here. They don’t.’”

"Jo Koy opened the door, he likes to say, for Filipinos and other Asians who simply want to be seen on screen... From his point of view, that means minimizing criticism against his work and by extension, Jo Koy himself, in order to keep giving opportunities to those who deserve it."

“Easter Sunday” is Jo Koy’s own balikbayan box filled with Filipino trinkets that add cultural texture to an otherwise conventional family comedy. He has spoken extensively about the insurmountable struggles of making it in showbiz and the barriers a film like this broke. To emphasize, this film is the first time that Carrere has played a Filipino on-camera. And again, the whole Steven Spielberg connection. It’s no secret that Hollywood is rigged against Asians, and the slew of Asian-Americans violence in the last few years has affected many Filipinos who have been subjected to hate crimes. Jo Koy opened the door, he likes to say, for Filipinos and other Asians who simply want to be seen on screen. It is his sincerest hope that the door stays open. From his point of view, that means minimizing criticism against his work and by extension, Jo Koy himself, in order to keep giving opportunities to those who deserve it.

The main criticism against Jo Koy’s comedy (evident in the film) is how it promises to celebrate being Filipino but doesn’t root itself in the realities of this identity. An awareness of Philippine social issues don’t quite make it into his jokes, yet they’re just as much a part of our national fabric as the tabo or using Vicks VaporRub. Where Jo Koy has been vocal about the US elections, Asian hate, and racism in American media, he is decidedly mum about topics that affect his audience at large.

Eugene Cordero, Jo Koy, and Lou Diamond Philips in "Easter Sunday." Photo courtesy of UNIVERSAL PICTURES

During the press conference, I had the opportunity to ask Jo Koy if social awareness has a place in his Filipino-centric comedy. He makes it clear that a comedian’s role only extends so far.

“You know what my job is. I know what your job is, and you’re doing your job right now,” Jo Koy tells me. “But I’m gonna continue my job, and all I can do is work within me, and uplift my people and try to get them to another level, and help the masses, and I think that’s important. And I do understand that there are political issues and stuff like that, but there’s also people that are designated and are really good at doing stuff for that cause. And I believe in those people, because that’s what they’re here for. Just like how you’re gonna believe in me to get more work for Filipinos in Hollywood.”

While we Filipinos may share customs and histories, the lived experiences of Filipino Americans can be vastly different. In attempting to understand where Filipinos and the diaspora meet, I sought out Filipino-Americans outside of entertainment who connect to their homeland beyond popular culture. Back in May, I spoke to New York City-based social activist Julie Jamora during my visit. The US-born Jamora grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a place that had a sizable Filipino community. After being active in their school’s Filipino club and the local Filipino-American cultural society, she went on to join the US chapter of Gabriela and is now a member of the Malaya Movement, a grassroots organization fighting for human rights, democracy, and sovereignty.

Having done activism work for several years, Jamora observes that late generation Filipino-Americans are less likely to feel a strong connection to current events back in the Philippines. It’s mainly due to their learning environment.

“A lot of Fil-Ams, students, youth… it’s all about identity. Dancing, culture, food… but not really what’s happening in the Philippines,” Jamora says. “And that’s because you grew up in the center of imperialism. Your education… you’re not taught anything about your culture. Even the legacy of how the US colonized the Philippines, what the role of US militarization is in the country. Of course, people are oblivious to it.”

According to Jamora, this is part of the work that organizations like the Malaya Movement do in the United States, educating communities there about what she calls “our true legacy of resistance.” She says that while more Fil-Ams tuned into the 2022 national elections because of the Marcoses’ return to power, they were just as much prey to the disinformation media machinery that plagued the Philippines. US-based Filipino organizations have also been subjected to redtagging attempts.

Jamora says, “They use the same tactics that they used in the Philippines on activists there and activists here. Yeah, just to continue the narrative that activism is bad. Speaking against the government is bad. You’re a communist. You’re a terrorist.”

In writing about “Filipinx” and the gender-neutrality of the Filipino language, Marrian Pio Roda Ching touched on the shared and diverging sociopolitical contexts of Filipinos and Fil-Ams. “Acknowledging these different experiences,” Ching wrote, “and locating them in our shared struggle against structural violence and systemic oppression is necessary for a genuine and meaningful practice of solidarity.”

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a comedian like Jo Koy to bear the burden of representing every facet of who we are. “Easter Sunday” doesn’t have to be anything else but what it is — a surface-level understanding of what it means to be a Filipino abroad. Jo Koy’s personal, heavily accented comedy has brought him great success after what is undoubtedly a huge personal gamble on his end. Having the platform to speak about the Filipino migrant experience to a captive white audience is a powerful position to be in, and to eschew that position in favor of making neutral, inoffensive jokes is to actively disconnect from the very people he so badly wants to represent.

There is no doubt that Jo Koy has made strides for Filipino-American representation, and that’s something worth celebrating. But to avoid criticism of his work in favor of representation is to assume that representation is all that we need. To represent us is one thing; to advocate for us is another. In a time when media is being wielded nefariously to influence minds, the use of comedy to provide social commentary has become more necessary than ever. Just like the act of filling up a balikbayan box, the comedian Jo Koy may feel that it’s his duty to provide for everyone back in the Philippines. But the question is this, beyond the American branded T-shirts and bags of chocolate to thrill us, is the box filled with exactly what we need?