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Easter Sunday: A Milestone for Filipino Representation in Film

Sampan — 08.09.2022

The big screen has recently felt the presence, the joy, the powerful (and incredibly comedic) storytelling of a Filipino family in America. Jo Koy’s comedy, Easter Sunday, hit the theatres on August 5th, marking an achievement for representation of Filipino culture and opportunities for Filipino actors. Throughout history, Filipinos have seen little representation, whether through the opportunities given to actors or authentic roles being portrayed in film. Koy, along with some of his co-stars, explore the importance of that representation in this film, adding a bit of comedic flair, relatable family dynamics, and beloved traditions.

Minority representation is often hard enough to obtain. And Filipino representation has somehow been buried amongst the call for other voices. But no more. Filipino’s are the third highest group of Asians in America, accounting for about 4.2 million people out of the U.S. population. They have been a part of American history from as early as the late-fifteen hundreds, contributing to the Farm Labor Movement and the growth of Hollywood’s hometown, California. And yet, Hollywood has shown films with 5.9% of characters being of Asian American or Pacific Islander heritage, out of 1300 top movies between 2007 and 2019. Of those, only 3.3% had Asian American or Pacific Islander lead or co-leads. Though one might wonder how far back Filipino actors stretch.

Currently, some of the names of actors with Filipino heritage will turn heads from their more prominent roles. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista, Dante Basco (notable for Hook and Avatar: The Last Airbender), Jacob Batalon (riding in on the newest Spiderman movies), The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto, Bird’s of Prey’s Ella Jay Basco, and of course Lou Diamond Phillips and Tia Carrere (both of whom star in Easter Sunday.)

Early Filipino actors and roles are difficult to come by, save for the valiant pursuit of one Elena Jurado Jacobs. Born in 1901 in Cebu to a U.S. Army Sergeant and Sibonga born Placida Jurado, Elena immigrated to America when she was just 18. In 1919, she and her husband, a U.S. Army medic, arrived in California, looking for work. After a fortuitous meeting with Hobart Bosworth, then a lead actor in the film White Hands for which Elena was auditioning, Elena started her career in 1922. She went on to act in a number of silent films, becoming an early, and sadly often unknown, trailblazer for the representation of Filipinos and women in film.

Koy sought to further this journey for Filipino representation in film, fighting for the showing of Easter Sunday to be in the theatre instead of Netflix. According to NBC, Koy said he wasn’t going to have it any other way, stating, “I love Netflix. But I felt like if it had been on Netflix, it wouldn’t do it any justice.” He went on to recount his own powerful experiences with seeing Filipino actors on television. He felt “seen”, watching Dante Basco lead the lost boys in Hook. He was deeply impacted by seeing Rob Schneider make even a small reference to Filipino culture in Deuce Bigalow. His goal in pushing for this film to hit the theatre first was to not only give Filipinos a voice, but to also, hopefully, give a shot to other Filipinos trying to make it in show business.

The film follows Koy, the main character, playing Joseph Valencia, a struggling actor and single father, going home to celebrate Easter with his family. They have their problems, bickering and inner feuds, like any, but are filled with love for each other. A unique number of circumstances arise as Joe seeks to stop familial feuding, bring his family together and even help some of his family members out of some hilarious yet strange situations. In the middle of it, Koy brings authentic representation fueled by the beautiful Filipino voice. Easter Sunday is officially the first Hollywood studio film about Filipino Americans and should draw everyone into the theaters with nothing but unbridled excitement.

Koy’s co-star, Lou Diamond Phillips, has been waiting for such an opportunity. The actor has played in many different roles, only two of which were Filipino roles. In an interview with Esquire, Phillips mentioned his history with playing different roles. His earliest and first role playing someone Filipino was in the 90s and he reflected on the experience. “To be able to play someone of Filipino descent especially then [1991] in Hollywood–you know, I had to create that content because I was being cast as everything but. Then again, there wasn’t a lot of call for Filipino stories or Filipino-infused stories or characters that reflected that sensibility…They’re just now getting ready.”

Comedy star Jo Koy is making them ready. With culture, comedy, class, and creativity…but not without sentimentality. Koy worked to implement too much in this film that will represent Filipino culture, family, and language. It goes beyond this as well to show their struggles. Koy teared up while filming his favorite scene, according to NBC news, in which the family prepares Balikbayan boxes. Filled with different goods, they are sent to their family back in the Philippines. It shows an essential part of Filipino culture in which they not only care for themselves and their family in the states, but those that are still in the Philippines. Koy was caught reminiscing, as this is something his own mother did in the 80s for relatives back home.  Koy expanded on the experience, saying “When we shot that, I started tearing up. It’s very emotional to see that, and you want other people to see that. Like, look: This is what we do. These people that live in this country, they’re taking care of other families.”

This expression in the essential sharing of stories from other cultures, and the sharing of one that isn’t often told, is another way that people can better understand someone else and appreciate who they are and where they come from. This movie and it’s representation challenges stigmas and stereotypes of Filipinos by sharing stories told by them. Sharing those stories provides a light into another’s world and a connection for someone who is unaware of similar some things are, like family and how unique and important another culture is.

In an interview with Today, Koy shared more of his passion about the film and the affect it will have. “My mom moved here in ’69 and its been 51 years she’s lived here and never seen anything like this. And this is the first time that her and anyone else that is Filipino will get to be represented this way.”

In the interview, Al Roker commented on the phone call in the trailer where Koy’s character, Joe, is being prodded and guilt tripped by his curious but loving mother about coming over for easter. “You were listening in on my parent’s conversation!” He said. Koy was nothing but smiles as he agreed. A small moment, but an important one that shows the relatability existent in two different people from different cultures. Another goal of Koy’s, to show that representation of different cultures matter, that it is important to celebrate your history and who you are, that there are things we all have in common that not only makes us similar but that makes us all human.

In a text conversation with this reporter, Lidy Chan, Advisor, NaFFAA New England Region/NaFFAA National Arts, Culture and Entertainment Director said:

“It’s refreshing to see Filipinos represented in a movie that promotes laughter and is completely relatable. Even if you don’t have a large family Easter is exactly like the movie.There are a lot of moments in the movie that bring back memories of spending time with your titas and lula during holidays. I think having an all Filipino cast is significant as we don’t normally see that on American TV. It’s a little surprising that we haven’t had a full Filipino cast in a mainstream movie here because we have a large Filipino population in the US. We know representation matters. We are known for singing and dancing but this movie shows we can act too and you can be a comedian. You can be a producer and you don’t have to follow what others expect of you. I hope this inspires young Filipinos to continue to push the boundaries in American media and to follow one’s passion”.

It is the ability to look past previous, perhaps harmful showings of Filipinos in TV-shows with off-the-wall jokes and stereotypes. Koy has provided a means by which people can look to the screen, just like he did, and see themselves in an honest and heartfelt way.

This article was first published here.