Halfway through Power Rangers, the moody, modern reboot of the camp TV show from 1993, the daredevil demeanor of Zack Taylor cracks. Played by Chinese-Canadian actor Ludi Lin, whose wide black eyes dominate his handsome face, we find out that Zack’s life revolves not around jumping off cliffs and onto moving cars but rather, taking care of his ailing mother (Fiona Fu) in their trailer home. Zack’s fear of her inevitable passing drives him to live without a safety net.
Welcome to Angel Grove, where the realest image of a poor Asian-American family exists on the fringes of a superhero blockbuster.
Zack isn’t a new breed of Asian-American. It’s just that Zack and the millions of others like him are rarely seen in Hollywood movies. It was 1987 when TIME ran its cover story, “Those Asian American Whiz Kids,” which chronicled the academic prowess and affluence of American-born children of Asian immigrants. It was a flashpoint for Asian-Americans at the time, who became aware of their image as the “model minority” (a term which first appeared in the New York Times in 1966). A follow-up in 2014 revealed things hadn’t changed: “The belief in a blanket Asian-American culture is so thick that it has resulted in confusion when Asian-Americans deviate from the model minority myth,” wrote journalist Jack Linshi. “[T]hose who display that diversity are often perceived as exceptions.”
This misperception that Asian-Americans are naturally gifted and succeed more has been devastating for the psyche; the Counseling and Mental Health Center of the University of Texas at Austin purports Asian-American students are “more likely to seek medical leave, more likely to go on academic probation, and are less likely to graduate in four years.” The university has statistics to illustrate the crippling pressure: 33 percent of Asian-American students drop out of high school. Asian-American students were likely to report stress, loss of sleep, and “feelings of hopelessness” but “were less likely to seek counseling.”
And not all of them have the resources to seek help: 11.8 percent of Asian-Americans live below the poverty line. The model minority monolith ignores Asian-Americans from less-prosperous regions. A national report in 2015 revealed that those of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong heritage “earned bachelor’s degrees at a lower rate than the national average.” In 2013, The Myth of the Model Minority author Rosalind Chou told NPR “there are consequences to living in a country with a racial hierarchy,” to which Sharon H. Chang argued in ThinkProgress results in complete and total invisibility, even within one’s own minority group.
“Even we get sucked into this belief sometimes,” Ludi Lin told Angry Asian Man. “[A] lot of Asians are disadvantaged … they’re transplanted from one culture to another. Through life and circumstance, you sometimes fall into the wrong part of your life and you don’t know how to deal with it.”
So in comes Power Rangers, showing Asian-American poverty to a worldwide audience. Zack’s bilingual trailer home is cluttered and broken, nothing like the sunny suburbs of Fresh Off the Boat and films like American Pie (where John Cho coined “MILF”) or Sixteen Candles (where Long Duk Dong ruined it for everyone). His mother is bedridden and never cured, not even when Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) is slapped out of Earth’s orbit. Zack has no plans for his future other than keeping his mother alive, and if he has to climb into a mechanical Mastodon to save her and Angel Grove, then that’s what he’ll do. That’s a resonant child-of-immigrant anxiety, despite the fact that Zack is making things worse by not telling his mom he ditches school. To Zack, there’s no point in success if his reason to live will die soon.
An unusual life path is carved for Zack by the very thing that will shun him for it: a deep connection to Asian and immigrant family values. That fact is at the core of any minority hyphenate experience in America today. But why it shines so bright in Power Rangers is because the unusual part of this representation, Zack’s poverty, is unfamiliar to not just mainstream, white America but Asian-Americans who buy into the model minority myth.
Because of the need to explain Megazords and Power Coins, Zack’s story wasn’t given the screen time afforded to Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kim (Naomi Scott), and Billy (R.J. Cyler). But Lin still knew the gravity of his role; he mined pieces of himself to make Zack authentic. “She sacrificed a lot for me,” Lin told Den of Geek about his real mother, who accompanied him to the film’s premiere in Los Angeles. He spoke of the “sacrificial generation” — the first-gen immigrants who give up themselves to build a comfortable future for the next generation. “To bring that to the screen and tell that part of the story means a lot to me.”
Even great examples of authentic Asian-Americans pale to the honesty of Zack. In Justin Lin’s 2002 drama Better Luck Tomorrow — inspired by the 1992 murder of Stuart Tay in what is known as the “Honor Roll Murder” — students at a California high school hustle their way into a fast and furious life, using their model minority status as the perfect cover. The film continues to be praised as an example of how young Asian-Americans feel, and Lin’s film deserves all the hype it gets. But its scope was limited to one bracket of the American income demographic, a bracket that has the solvency to start over.
In 2016, Asian-Americans were the most ardent paid consumers of films, reflective of their buying power valued at $825 billion. But those statistics sum up the populace, not the people, and people live in poverty and trailer parks.
The superhero genre, which traffics in fantasy fulfillment, is prime to usher Lin’s Black Ranger and a new look at the complexities of Asian-American life. In the shadow of Iron Fist and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Power Rangers has become the unexpected dose of oxygen for an audience suffocating under labels and invisibility. Zack is a rebel, charging into action with heart and brawn over his brains, flipping stereotypes on its head and proving there are other ways for Asian-Americans to succeed without cutting off Asian culture.
Power Rangers was nostalgic fun for the majority of moviegoers. But it was also a resonant film that reflected its very real 2017 audience in characters like Billy, who is explicitly on the autism spectrum, and the reckless but loving Zack. Emotionally, Zack is true, but in action, he is groundbreaking.