Hank Azaria, the white actor who has long been the voice of a cartoon Indian stereotype, turned himself into an ally last night.
Azaria is the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a character on the long-running show The Simpsons. Apu owns a Kwik-E-Mart and speaks in a stereotypical Indian accent while doing stereotypically cringe-worthy things.
Fans of the show had begun to cry foul.
Many of the complaints had been crystallized in a 2017 film called The Problem With Apu, created by comedian Hari Kondabolu, a one-time Simpsons fan who explored the longevity of the insulting character. Kondabolu interviewed scores of South Asian Americans, some very famous, many of whom had been bullied by white peers in Apu’s voice. The film sparked a national conversation about how damaging the Apu character had been, particularly since he remains one of the most prominent representations of South Asian people in entertainment.
If you don’t have time for the entire film, the trailer will frame the issue – and Azaria’s role in it – quite nicely.
But in a conversation with Late Show host Stephen Colbert last night, Azaria offered a pretty good blueprint for how to admit a mistake and make it right.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and my eyes have been opened,” he began. “I think the most important thing is that we have to listen to South Asian, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character.”
Azaria’s comments came just weeks after the writers tried and failed to handle the issue within an episode of The Simpsons.
They chose Lisa, the heart and moral center of the series, to address the growing controversy. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” Lisa said to the camera. “What can you do?” Her mother, Marge Simpson, also spoke to the camera. “Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” she says. “If it all,” Lisa responds.
Fans were disappointed in what reviewer Dana Schwartz termed a tepid and heartbreaking response. “The Simpsons‘ response to criticism is a cop-out in the worst way, a response of dig-in-your-heels defensiveness against an invisible threat with a spit in the face for good measure,” she writes.
But Azaria, in an ally power move, offered a way forward.
“I really want to see Indian, South Asian writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced,” he said. “I’m perfectly willing and happy to step aside or help transition it into something new.”
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