23rd Nov2017

‘The Problem With Apu’ Review

by Phil Wheat

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The Simpsons has been hailed as one of the greatest animated TV shows in US television history; and it’s safe to say, that as a white male, I’ve never really thought of the show as anything more than a once-funny sitcom that has long-since outstayed its welcome (29 seasons? Really?). However that’s not the case for everyone.

The Problem With Apu sees comedian Hari Kondabolu speak with other prominent South Asian performers about the damaging legacy of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – the Kwik-E-Mart owning animated character on The Simpsons voiced by Hank Azaria, a white actor, with a heavily exaggerated stereotypical Indian accent – and the characters effect on a generation of performers who are now seeing the kinds of mainstream media success that offers a true representation of South Asians beyond the stereotypical cab driver, shop keeper or doctor…

In this highly-personal, insightful and timely exploration of minority media representation, Kondabolu talks to fellow actors and comedians including Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minjaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aparna Nancherla, Russell Peters, Sakina Jaffrey and Maulik Pancholy – all of whom share poignant stories about their own experiences with Apu and the broader questions about the comedy and representation he evokes… All the while trying to track down Azaria for a face-to-face, on-camera interview.

Tackling race, racial stereotypes and racial discrimination in a documentary could be heavy-going, but by approaching the subject from the perspective of comedy and profiling what is, honestly, one of the most controversial characters on US television: a cartoon character no less, Hari Kondabolu’s film feels less like a preachy, SJW-charged diatribe at American society, politics and mainstream media, and more like hearing a friend talk about his thoughts and feelings on what is, ultimately, a throwback to the black-faced minstrels of the 50s; and no-one would EVER consider bringing those back into mainstream television! So why is Apu still a character on The Simpsons?

I’ll be honest, as a white male I’d never actually considered Apu as anything other than a throwaway character on an animated sitcom that I stopped watching over a decade ago. It never occurred to me that he was the ONLY mainstream representation of an entire race on American television! Maybe it’s because here in the UK we’ve always had a greater representation of minorities on television? In fact I think British television has pioneered fair and balanced representation, in particular on soaps like Eastenders – which, at least in the early years, always aimed to show the diversity of London, and England as a whole. But, as I discovered in The Problem With Apu that’s not the case in America, in fact it’s almost the opposite.

Would I have realised that without seeing Kondabolu’s film? No. Has Kondabolu’s film changed my entire perspective? Yes. Which shows the true power of this documentary – by approaching the subject from a fun, humourous angle Kondabolu makes what is a serious, heavy-going, subject easier to digest and easier to understand and more importantly empathise with. For me there’s a sure way to determine how successful a documentary is, by how much of an effect it has on you after the fact… And The Problem With Apu completely changed my perspective on The Simpsons, Azaria and the character of Apu. But much more than that, it had me questioning the appearance and behaviour of minority characters in ALL media.

Having screened as part of DOC;NYC and on truTV, The Problem With Apu is now available on VOD.

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