How Raya and the Last Dragon Reflects the Need for Asian and Black Solidarity
a commentary by Justine Torres
My pillow is soaked.
It’s Friday, March 5, 2021. The title credits are rolling, but a steady stream of tears blurs my vision. I’ve just finished watching Raya and the Last Dragon, and it shook me to my core.
Throughout the movie’s progression, I had been updating some of my friends via text, sharing my reaction to the film through periodic, nonsensical messages:
update: not even 20 minutes in and i’m crying
OH MY GOD, I’M TORN APART RN
this movie makes me so emotional
I’M A MESS
the tears are actually streaming down my face
Inspired by my incomprehensible keyboard gibberish, one of my friends decided to open up Disney+ and see what all the hype was about. Sure enough, two hours—and one animated movie—later, she replied:
ok, justine’s just soft
Her brutal honesty made me laugh. She wasn’t wrong; the movie had beautiful animation and a compelling story, but it wasn’t perfect. I hadn’t expected it to elicit such a strong emotional response. Perhaps it was the incomprehensible joy of seeing visual representation on screen—after 18 years on this planet, gazing upon a screen and seeing a strong, multi-dimensional character who embodied more than a racial trope. For the first time in my life, I saw a character who actually looked like me: a character whose skin is the same shade of brown, whose nose slopes just like mine, and whose eyes are the same eyes that stare back at me whenever I view my reflection in the mirror.
I know the power that representation holds, especially to those deprived of it their entire lives. However, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that the tears induced by watching Raya and the Last Dragon were more than just from representation in mainstream media. They reflected a much larger phenomenon, yet I couldn’t paint an accurate picture of what it was, no matter how hard I tried.
For a while, the feeling went unplaced. As the days passed, the magic from Raya and the Last Dragon began to dissipate. After all, the world of Kumandra, filled with dragons, con babies, and cute, transportable pillbug/armadillo/pug hybrids—a world that celebrates Asian culture—is not our reality. I, a young Filipina surrounded by people with hair and skin lighter than mine, have to face the fact that very few of my friends could ever truly understand this film’s impact on my heart. Many of them aren’t Asian; they don’t have the cultural background to gain a deeper insight into Raya and the Last Dragon. They may understand its plot, but they can easily overlook the implications this movie holds for the world we live in.
Have you ever heard about the hero’s journey? It’s the basis of any good Disney movie, including Raya and the Last Dragon. Every compelling story has several characteristics in common:
The happy ending.
Having grown up with an appreciation for animated films, I vicariously lived through such stories. After all, reality is boring. This universe doesn’t have Greek gods with flaming blue hair or demigods that can shapeshift into any creature with the assistance of a magical hook. Planet Earth doesn’t have witches, talking animals, or magical spells. There are no monsters or terrible entities that turn everything they touch into ash and stone, like the Druun from Raya and the Last Dragon.
But what if the monsters of this world don’t necessarily have a physical form? Sure, Raya is skilled with a blade, but how can someone like me vanquish racism, a threat that doesn’t take on a tangible form? Racism is embedded in every aspect of society. This monster is all around us. It’s in the kids who squint their eyes and slant their eyelids on the playground. It’s in the students who invalidate the accomplishments of their Asian peers, chalking up their achievements to heritage instead of work ethic. It’s in the people who tell me my face is too flat, my food is too strange, and my heritage is too weird for me to ever fit in.
Not even two weeks after Raya and the Last Dragon’s release date, a man murdered eight people at various Asian-run massage spas and parlors in Atlanta, Georgia—and six of the victims were Asian women. Eight bright lights were unjustly extinguished. Cherokee County sheriff Jay Baker tried to chalk it up to a “bad day.” The perpetrator attempted to play it off as a proactive measure to “eliminate” a “temptation” stemming from his “sex addiction.” But call it what it was: premeditated murder. A hate crime. An act of racism against the Asian community.
The gunman who killed these innocent people wasn’t just having a “bad day.” He deliberately drove to each location and purposefully fired each fatal bullet. What if I’m next? In the middle of a global pandemic, I’m trying to navigate my senior year of high school. I’m scared of what COVID-19 bodes for the future. I’m scared of my loved ones being the next victims of Asian hate. I’m terrified of being a statistic, of having my life reduced to a number or a factoid, and of my humanity being taken away from me more than it already has been. On top of being a woman, I am Asian and thus must also battle being fetishized, alienized, and otherized by white males who view Asian women as sexual objects. Fetishization is still racism, and racism is never acceptable.
Real-life is rarely as clear-cut as fiction. In the twenty-first century, we’ve learned to live alongside racism—even accept it. The people terrorized by it are too scared to fight back, and those unscathed may even benefit from it. Some people don’t want to see this monster defeated. Some people don’t even believe it exists. Some people cheer the monster on. Some people are fighting each other instead of the monster.
One aspect of the hero’s journey that often goes overlooked is the ally. Within Raya and the Last Dragon, Raya meets many people along her quest to vanquish the Druun for good: Sisu, the last dragon of Kumandra; Boun, the young boat captain from the tribe of Tail; Tong, the last man from the village of Spine; and Noi, the young toddler from Talon who, despite her young age, resorted to theft to survive. However, the ally who stuck out to me the most was Namaari from Fang, a young woman who, six years earlier, betrayed Raya’s friendship and inadvertently unleashed the Druun upon the world.
Raya and Namaari were born into a world that pitted them against each other from the moment they were born. Kumandra was divided into five different tribes:
“Tail. A sweltering desert with sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.
Talon. A floating market famous for fast deals and fighters with even faster hands.
Spine. A frigid bamboo forest guarded by exceptionally large warriors and their giant axes.
Fang. A nation protected by angry assassins and their even angrier cats.
Heart. A land filled with lush rainforests and a peace-loving community.”
These lands were different entities, with their own respective cultures and ways of life. However, they had forgotten that they were once whole. They had forgotten what they used to be. Namaari had betrayed Raya because she cared about her people’s wellbeing. Yet in doing so, she forgot that Raya was one of “her people,” too. Conversely, Raya’s rage and resentment from Namaari’s betrayal almost blinded her to the true monster: the Druun, which had turned Raya’s father to stone. Ultimately, the cultural tension between Raya and Namaari highlights the dangers of a divided world, more than any Disney movie from the past.
Raya and the Last Dragon is the first movie featuring a main character of Southeast Asian descent. Thus, it primarily focuses on showcasing the beauty and richness of Southeast Asian culture. Yet the story, to a deeper extent, mirrors the need for Asian and Black solidarity. The coronavirus pandemic helped me realize my privilege as an Asian American relative to African Americans. Now, I have begun to understand the pain that the Black community has undergone for centuries. Every time I see a headline on the news about yet another attack against Asians, every time I force myself to view the battered face of a man or woman brutally subjected to unjustified violence, I see the faces of my mom and dad. I see the faces of my aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I see my face. I can’t fool myself anymore. Each of the victims could have been me.
It is essential to note the prevalence of anti-Blackness within the Asian community. Both Asian and African American groups have taken inspiration from each other in the past, working together to further collective racial justice. In 1968, UC Berkeley students coined the term “Asian American,” drawing from the Black Power Movement. Activists such as Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs actively advocated for Black social justice movements and incorporated Black radical frameworks into Asian American liberation. In the late ‘60s, Asian American students allied with Black student organizers, partaking in the Third World Liberation Front and paving the way for equal education opportunities and ethnic studies programs. However, the relationship between the Asian and Black communities is still fraught with tension. History reveals that we have had a hand in perpetuating racist sentiments against our Black brothers and sisters.
In 1991, fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins walked into Empire Liquor Market and Deli and never made it out alive. She was shot in the back of the head over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. It didn’t matter that she had $2 in her hand. It didn’t matter that she had no intentions of stealing. What mattered was that she was Black. What matters is that the store owner who killed her—a Korean woman—was only given probation. In that same month, Rodney King, an African American man, was savagely beaten by four policemen before a crowd of onlookers. All four men were acquitted. The injustice of the American justice system was the tipping point for many: in attacks collectively known as the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the Black community exploded in anger. For six days, they pillaged and looted, primarily laying waste to Korean businesses. Don’t misconstrue my words. There is no excusing this behavior, but I can empathize.
It’s been thirty years since Latasha Harlins was killed. It’s been thirty years since Rodney King was repeatedly kicked and struck with batons in a public street, but Black men and women are still being killed. It’s been thirty years, and not much has changed. Racial inequality persists. The heart of the monster is still beating strong. The Black community is still hurting, and we—the “model minority”—have remained largely complicit. Many of us have stood by, watching from afar. When Derek Chauvin suffocated George Floyd in 2020, Tou Thao, a fellow police officer, did just that. He stood by. He watched. He enabled the monster, and in doing so, he allowed it to triumph.
The model minority myth is yet another force that divides us. “Asians have experienced racism, but they’ve worked so hard, they’ve been able to overcome adversity and achieve the American Dream. Why can’t you?” Coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966, this pervasive ideal promotes the notion that Asian Americans are the “good minority” and that we are more successful than any other non-white racial group. According to Bianca Mabute-Loui, an ethnic studies adjunct at Laney College, the model minority myth creates a devastating monolithic identity for Asian Americans based on perceived assimilation to white ideals. It drives a wedge between Asian Americans and other communities of color. Every day we don’t reverse the narrative of Asian/Black hostility, more of us are hurt. By focusing our energy upon the tensions between our communities, we fail to remember the true monster: white supremacy. According to Vox, “White supremacy is what caused segregation, policing, and scarcity of resources in low-income neighborhoods….and for Black and Asian communities to move forward, it is important to remember the root cause and fight together against it.” But how can we work together? How can we move forward from all of the ways white supremacy has tried to pit us against each other?
Raya and the Last Dragon re-instilled my hope for a world built by intersectional unity. It’s only when all five tribes—Heart, Fang, Spin, Talon, and Tail—are united that the monster is defeated. It’s only when Raya places her life in the hands of the very person who she never thought she could forgive that Kumandra is restored. Like so, it is only when the Asian and Black communities work together that we can find ourselves in a new and better world. Our days of division are over. We must face the beast together to defeat it. Vanquishing racism isn’t the quest of just one person. It’s not the role of just one hero. We all are responsible for playing a part: unlearning our prejudices, speaking out against racism when we see it occur, standing up for those in other marginalized communities as well as our own, and trusting our allies.
I will never know what it’s like to be a Black person. A Black person will never know what it’s like to walk in my shoes. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work together
“We have a choice. We can tear each other apart, or we can come together and build a better world.” Raya’s journey has ended, but ours is only just getting started.
- Justine Torres