A new documentary from writer-comedian Hari Kondabolu explores, examines, and confronts a wildly-offensive cartoon character that has somehow survived nearly three decades on television without any significant controversy.
The Problem With Apu takes on Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian convenience store owner who has been a fixture on The Simpsons for 28 years. Nearly every major South Asian actor in Hollywood lent their voice to the film—including powerhouses like Aziz Ansari and Russell Peters and rising stars such as Hasan Minhaj, acknowledging how the character does a disservice to a group of people who routinely ignored or parodied by American media.
A particularly poignant appearance comes from none other than Whoopi Goldberg, whom Kondabolu lauds as an “expert on the matter” of the representation of people of color in front of the camera—even more emphatically than he does his friend and frequent collaborator W. Kamau Bell, who helped launch his initial campaign against Apu.
In a recent post-screening dialogue moderated by Slate’s Aisha Harris, Goldberg joined Kondabolu, director Michael Melamedoff and South Asian American actors Utkarsh Ambudkar and Aparna Nancherla, to reiterate the same sociopolitical empathy Black women are known to provide (and rarely receive in return.)
Counseling Ambudkar, who since regrets appearing in an episode of The Simpsons that was made to course-correct the cartoon’s representation of Indians, she said “[For many years] I was the downtrodden black woman, and then I was the housekeeper. And I’ve made probably a hundred movies, now—you’ve got to stay in the game…every time you make a stride, you make a path. Every path that you make widens and allows other people to walk with you, so you don’t have to keep doing [those roles].”
Of her motivation to appear in the film, the EGOT winner explained “I always like to think I recognize it—when people are left out— but I missed this. And I thought, shit, if I missed it, who else has missed it?”
“I should know better,” she continued. “As someone who has gone through this, I should have recognized this. The fact that I didn’t tells me we’re still in our little boxes.”
That same intersectional analysis is integral to The Problem With Apu, which acknowledges the connection between America’s tradition of Blackface minstrelsy and stereotyped images of South Asian Americans without altogether conflating the two.
On the panel, Kondabolu explained that “it was really important to have Whoopi in the film, because I really wanted to contextualize this particular character in the larger history of racial representation in this country. The Black experience is very different than the South Asian experience. I don’t think they’re equal, and it wouldn’t be right to say that—but there is a lineage.”
CASSIUS caught up with the 35-year-old to hear more of his take on that “lineage” and possible solutions to the Apu problem in media:
C: In your scene together, you seemed taken aback by Whoopi’s collection of “negrobilia.” What did you learn from your interaction with her about documenting minstrelsy and preserving those transgressions as markers of time in American history?
HK: I think it reinforced what the film is really about. It wasn’t really about finding Hank Azaria [the White man who voiced Apu], and it wasn’t really about doing something about the character. The character is a secondary thing. Ultimately, what it’s about is doing what Whoopi does with her collection—marking time; making sure people know this is important, it’s a part of history, and that there’s context to what we see today. That’s all crucial.
She doesn’t shy away from it, because it’s important. And that’s what the film is. Whatever happens—whether [Hank] agreed to be in it or not, whether we got to talk to Matt Groening [the creator of The Simpsons], whether there is a solution—this existing is the key.
C: How different—if any different at all—do you think your childhood would have been without Apu as a source of trauma?
HK It’s almost like is it better to be nonexistent or is it better to exist within someone else’s lens? That’s a really hard question.
On one hand, when Apu came out, I was really excited when I was a kid. Because we didn’t exist, and the idea that you at least see us was huge. And after a few years, you realize oh, this is how you see us. So, I really don’t know how to answer that. I feel like it’s a lose-lose proposition.
C: Most things concerning race seem to feel that way these days.
HK: Yeah. It speaks to a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot. Whenever there’s this idea of diversity and you have to include more characters—like why can’t we include a Black lead? Why can’t we have an interracial couple with two people of color?—whenever these discussions come up, it’s always “the audience isn’t going to relate to that. White audiences aren’t going to get it.”
And it hurts me, because growing up as a person of color in this country, we have to watch White characters. We have to watch White films. If we say “oh, these are White people—we can’t watch it, we can’t enjoy it,” then we can’t enjoy anything. To be a person of color in this country and to function means you have to humanize White people. You have to see them as complex. You have to see them as people who are also dealing with stuff that might be slightly different than your experience, but it’s the human experience. You have to see them as human.
So when I hear “we can’t relate to that,” it’s saying we can’t relate to you as a human—even though you’re experiencing this and there’s some commonality, we see difference first. That’s really hard and really painful.
But I’d like to think we’re in an era in which that’s changing. I see it with Aziz’s show and with Issa Rae’s show. When you see this young generation that’s saying “hey, I’m watching this—there’s stuff I don’t know and there’s stuff I’m learning, but it’s human.” We’re talking about dating, we’re talking about New York, we’re talking about family—that’s universal. That’s shared stuff.
C: In the film, your parents reacted to Apu a bit differently than you did. I’d theorize for a 1st generation American, much like for African Americans, a greater expectation of justice exists given the fact that we’re born here, and thus, we’re more easily bruised once we realize the insidiousness of racism.
HK: That’s absolutely right. I think that’s it. I, as an American, have certain entitlements; certain beliefs that this is the way that it’s supposed to be, that this is what I deserve. Also, I grew up in Queens, New York. We’re all from different places, so it wasn’t until the media showed me I was different that I realized there are places that aren’t like Queens and the rest of the world.
For my parents, I think they were just glad to be here. They were glad to get work. They were glad their kids are okay. My mom says in the film it’s not that they weren’t offended—that just wasn’t a focus in their lives. They had other things to worry about.
But my parents have lived in America longer than they’ve lived in India at this point. Their view of America now is very different than it was when I was a kid. They’ve evolved. This is their home. This is their country. So now they feel very differently, I think, than they did when I was a kid.
C: My favorite line from the film is “I’ve never heard someone say they liked Apu because he exposed the idiocy and bigotry of Americans.” What would a character or show that exists in that way even look like?
HK: You know what it would look like? It would look like the rest of The Simpsons.
That’s what The Simpsons does. That’s why Apu doesn’t make sense in that world in a lot of ways. It’s too basic. It’s too cliche. People say “The Simpsons is full of stereotypes, that’s what they do.” And I’m like “that’s what you’re getting out of The Simpsons?!”
The Simpsons is brilliant political satire. It’s brilliant pop culture satire. It in a very clever way talks about the big issues of our era without being too abrasive. Apu doesn’t fit when you think about it like that. He’s built on a faulty foundation. He’s immediately not as nuanced.
C: How valid do you think the “we stereotype everyone” defense is across film and television in general, though?
HK: It’s nonsense. It’s the argument of equal opportunity offense. Well, give me equal opportunities and we can talk.
That’s not where we’re at. Each of our images are worth more than each of a White person’s images, because they have a ton of them. With each one of ours, that’s it.
It’s like “oh? Kal Penn’s in a movie? That’s it for the year.” And that was still new. When he was in Harold and Kumar, there were South Asian people complaining “why do they have to show us smoking weed? This is our one thing that we have.” To me, it was like “we’re a lead in a movie! We exist!”
It just matters more. And that’s true with all people of color. It’s always like “this is the one thing that we have—do it right.”
C: There are other serious issues with the representation of Asian people in Hollywood. For example, Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani have both been criticized for the frequency in which they cast White women as their romantic co-stars, contributing to the erasure of South Asian women.
HK That’s another problem when we only have a handful of people—they have to do everything. If that’s not true to Aziz and if that’s not true to Kumail, why would they create a story that they can’t write? At the end of the day, this requires more people getting opportunities to share their stories—like Aparna. She deserves a show. There are so many women who deserve a show.
People were going after Lena Dunham in Girls, and I got that. I understood the critiques. But part of me was like “okay, she’s not going to do it well anyway, though.” If you want her to talk about our issues, I’d rather you just give the show to Issa Rae, because she can actually talk from the perspective of a woman of color and there’s more to relate to there.
To me, the bigger thing is let’s get more of our voices out there. Our voices are more valuable now than ever before, because they’ve surpressed us forever. So every story we tell is a new one.