The Vivid and Complicated World of Awkwafina

The star of 'The Farewell' is on a vital - if also imperfect - quest to attain substantial media representation for Asian-Americans. Does she succeed?

Awkwafina Filmography - The Farewell
A24

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Awkwafina.


This column has broken down many a filmography, but we are yet to encounter anyone quite like Awkwafina. The bombastic, versatile multimedia artist born Nora Lum chose to don the moniker – a play on the popular water bottle brand – during teenhood. What Awkwafina hadn’t counted on in those early years was the meteoric rise to fame that was to come – as rapper, host, and most recently, award-winning actress.

That’s only a list of Awkwafina’s on-screen endeavors. Back in 2018, I briefly touched on the merits of her work when reporting on her initial casting in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. That project marked a huge milestone for the actress, who up until that point hadn’t led a movie of her own.

As her profile has risen in the years since then, I posit that a deeper dive into Awkwafina’s pre- and post-Farewell filmography is necessary. Her success exists on a couple of axes that intersect real life and fiction. In comparison to a more traditional actor’s filmography, that journey appears rather atypical and complex.

Awkwafina’s foremost years in the spotlight planted seeds of notoriety, definitively solidifying her place in the public’s consciousness almost a decade ago. First came the selection of an exaggerated New York gangster persona to go with the grandiosity of her self-proclaimed amusing stage name. It is this bright, extroverted, and outrageous personality that greatly aids Awkwafina in bringing her crude, comedy-driven musical adventures to life.


“My Vag”

Awkwafina’s filmography begins with her song, “My Vag.” The potential for virality in this tongue-in-cheek response to Mickey Avalon’s 2006 track “My Dick” was indisputable from the word go. “My Vag” turns the vulgar overtures of its ridiculous hypermasculine predecessor into an equally tawdry yet thoroughly refreshing anthem hyping up the vagina.

The song’s eviscerating deadpan lyrical content is only further enhanced by the relative chillness of the song’s accompanying music video. In the clip, Awkwafina authoritatively breaks the fourth wall in each shot. Meanwhile, a selection of silent, stone-faced male cronies operates at her disposal in the background. As Awkwafina spouts superlative expressions of female empowerment, she demands that her audience directly engages with them, crafting a compelling subversive impression of brutally honest feminist representation in the process.


Bad Rap

For better or worse, Awkwafina has since carried a similar sense of bluster throughout her career. During her humbler beginnings, the release of her debut album Yellow Ranger, which features her other YouTube hits such as “Queef” and “NYC Bitche$,” made her a bracing new face in the hip-hop world. Awkwafina’s musicianship directly leads to her first appearance in a feature film, Salima Koroma’s Bad Rap, a documentary profiling several Asian-American rappers.

In contrast to renowned battle rapper Dumbfoundead, as well as fellow up-and-coming wordsmiths Rekstizzy and Lyricks, Awkwafina stands out as the sole woman in the line-up of subjects in Bad Rap. The niche quality of her surprisingly crass, over-the-top brand – one that intentionally pushes back against well-worn labels thrown at petite East Asian women – reportedly makes her easier to market than her male counterparts.

At least, superficially. When Awkwafina considers her saleability – the title, the swagger, all of it – she vocalizes a persistent fear that she may not have sustainable longevity in the music business despite her fanbase’s current zealousness. Thankfully, the more immersed she gets into character and performance, the more confidence is fostered in her stage presence. Awkwafina is even cognizant of the role she plays in the rap scene, proclaiming:

“I don’t think that I’m a spokesperson for Asian-Americans at all. But I think that when I’m out there and I’m out there in a big way, I’m representing them. So it’s like… I want to make Asian-Americans proud.”

The audience hears her loud and clear. Awkwafina now reaps the most success in the mainstream across the four musicians featured in Bad Rap. Shortly after going viral, her massive personality and lively witticisms opened up opportunities for her as a television host – first of the MTV comedy series Girl Code and then her own YouTube talk show Tawk. These projects prove just how amiable Awkwafina can be, highlighting her adeptness at sketch comedy and her fearlessness to tackle outrageous interview scenarios.

However, before I take the plunge and examine Awkwafina’s more conventional acting roles in movies and TV, there remains an issue of perception that needs addressing. The interchangeability between the guise of Awkwafina and whoever Nora Lum is underneath – if such a distinction even exists – is legitimately puzzling and to some, troubling.

After all, Awkwafina is so contentious because a large portion of her public identity appropriates elements of African-American culture. Be it in the accent she raps in, the loudness she adopts, her dress code, or even the issue of her very appellation, she routinely meets criticism for not only emulating Blackness but adopting outright stereotypes of it.


Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

This is important because of how integral Awkwafina’s persona has been to her becoming a fully-fledged screen actress. During her time as a host, Awkwafina not only guested on shows like Mary + Jane but also landed her first supporting role in a narrative feature: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Unfortunately, Nicholas Stoller’s ill-conceived sequel to his mildly funny 2014 comedy Neighbors purely exists to make Awkwafina a hype woman for its other leads. She is funny in an obnoxious way, but there is only so much she can do with throwaway lines that don’t actually serve to boost the film’s plot.


Storks and The Angry Birds Movie 2

Awkwafina’s forays into big-screen voice-acting haven’t exactly been fruitful either, but they bank on her charisma. Despite top-notch casts, both Storks and The Angry Birds Movie 2 – the former reuniting her with Stoller – leave plenty to be desired. This is not to say that neither animated feature film has the potential to be charming. For instance, Awkwafina makes a very funny assistant to Bill Hader’s King Leonard Mudbeard in The Angry Birds Movie 2, showcasing her affinity for deadpan delivery. These films just end up being less than the sum of their parts.

Instead, a more accurate measure of Awkwafina’s onscreen comedic prowess comes in Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, and Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. Although she occupies relatively small roles in each of these vehicles, she remains a memorable inclusion because of her signature boisterousness.


Ocean’s 8

In the case of Ocean’s 8 – the women-led spin-off and sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy – Awkwafina’s main job is to blend in with the big wigs. For one thing, her character Constance plays the “hands” of the film’s primary heist. As a master pickpocket plucked from the streets of Queens to join the new Ocean crew, coolness and the ability to keep a low profile are tools of Constance’s trade.

She blindsides her targets just as easily during a basic distracting card game – swiping expensive watches in the process – as she does on the clock in pursuit of a necklace worth millions of dollars. In teaming up with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, Awkwafina – both in-character and in real life – earns a spot in this highly-polished operation and has the coveted shot at telling a thrilling story.


Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians positions Awkwafina alongside acting veterans and relative newcomers alike, and the radiance of its romantic, lighthearted story allows this plethora of Asian and Asian-American actors to flourish in the spotlight. The film recounts the ridiculous shenanigans of the uber-affluent through a lush and kitschy lens. Nevertheless, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t void of warmth and emotional weight in the slightest, and Awkwafina happens to be a big reason for that.

As Goh Peik Lin – best friend of protagonist Rachel (Constance Wu) – Awkwafina is gaudy and intense in her expression of friendship. Yet, Peik Lin embraces such individualistic garishness so noisily and unapologetically that she is admirable for it. Although Peik Lin comes from a moneyed background herself, Awkwafina still brings likable everywoman energy to alienating gold-plated mansions and extravagant cocktail parties. Her love for Rachel transcends materialism, which effectively contrasts other instances of ostensible propriety throughout the movie.


Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level leaves a similar impression, in that Awkwafina turns out to be a big part of that film’s heartful center. As a follow-up to Kasdan’s unexpectedly successful Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, The Next Level is wildly entertaining and a triumph in its own right. Awkwafina joins returning stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black as the film organically expands upon the established lore of its predecessor.

Her character, Ming Fleetfoot, is an avatar within the Jumanji game itself, equipped with a special set of skills as a notorious thief. Ming isn’t always able to show off those sneaky abilities, though – not when she tends to be more occupied with a range of internal conflicts, depending on which of the offline characters have her selected as their avatar. The Next Level sees Awkwafina often applying self-deprecating humor to maintain the necessary lightness of the film. Regardless, she sobers up just enough, never downplaying the identity issues that her offline characters face.


Dude

Olivia Milch’s Dude serves as somewhat of an outlier among Awkwafina’s early comedies. Although it utilizes the actress’ trademark techniques for showboating and otherwise obnoxious motormouth tendencies – she still operates as the movie’s comic relief – the film is steeped in perennially dark themes. This aligns Dude closer to the more serious endeavors Awkwafina’s later repertoire.

Alice Waddington’s dystopian thriller Paradise Hills is one of them. Dude and Paradise Hills can be summarized very differently. In the former, Awkwafina is one of four friends wracked by the sudden death of a peer. Meanwhile, the latter – which is marketed asThe Hunger Games meets The Stepford Wives” – shutters her away in a haunting isolated facility constructed to reconfigure women into idealized versions of themselves.

However, both films find a common thread in Awkwafina’s secondary characters, who are awkward yet quietly compelling. In Dude, Awkwafina displays a penchant for depth in unspoken cues. Her character, Rebecca, seems as happy-go-lucky as any stereotypical stoner kid would be. Beneath her veneer, she struggles with money problems at home, which distance her from her childhood friends once they are poised to go their separate ways when high school ends. Ultimately, though, Awkwafina isn’t given adequate space to fully embody the extent of Rebecca’s predicaments.


Paradise Hills

Comparatively, Paradise Hills takes an allegorical approach to its feminist message of individual determinism. Admittedly, the film’s fantastical setting and sci-fi plot devices make it narratively busy. Still, it anchors its storyline with a throughline of classism, interrogating how the concept affects society’s perception of women in general. Awkwafina depicts the green-haired, socially-anxious Yu, one of three recruits in Paradise Hills. Of all the character’s perceived “imperfections,” she primarily contends with an overly critical self-image fostered by a strict, unaccepting lifestyle at home.

Awkwafina gets to turn in one of the more intriguing performances in this film. While she leans into her tried-and-true sarcastic streak, a shroud of ruminative darkness deepens the audience’s reception of each joke or remark. Humor is a defense mechanism for Yu. Yet, despite her struggles, she is quirky, vibrant, and lovable anyway. Qualities that Awkwafina personifies vivaciously and engagingly. Consequently, once Yu winds up frighteningly stripped of these sincere, affable qualities – leaving a chilling, stoic shell behind – that transition is painful to witness.


The Farewell

For as much as Awkwafina demands our attention when she’s hysterical, she also has such an aptitude for soft melancholy. The Farewell provides one of the best examples of this. As the film’s protagonist, Billi, the actress contends with the terminal illness of her beloved grandmother, whom she lovingly calls Nai Nai. Of course, viewers are primed to expect devastation from the above premise. However, the multiplicities of Awkwafina’s delicate performance unearth an acute emotional honesty that is essential to the movie’s sincerity.

The Farewell is all about the connective tissues that bridge seemingly disparate situations. In Billi and Nai Nai’s relationship alone, the vast generational age difference doesn’t prevent the two from sharing a close bond, one that even seems to supersede Billi’s connection to her own parents. Although they live oceans apart – one in New York City and the other in Changchun, China, respectively – they are often just a phone call away, ready to share their secrets, hopes, and dreams with each other. Their sweet, earnest relationship augments every laugh and tear that’s elicited from audiences throughout the movie. Therefore, in going minimal – at least, superficially – Awkwafina unlocks a wealth of profundity in her talent.

The Farewell was deservedly met with overwhelming critical adoration upon release. It earned Awkwafina her historic Golden Globe win, among other accolades and nominations. Moreover, her performance married her developing mainstream stardom with indie darling prestige.


The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

Awkwafina’s sustained impact on pop culture further opened creative doors on the small screen. Over the years, she has featured in increasingly high-profile TV programs such as The Simpsons and Tuca & Bertie. These voice-acting jobs subsequently culminate in her first principal role in the Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which is nothing short of delightful.

The episodic prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 film, The Dark Crystal, is reminiscent of Awkwafina’s other ensemble pieces. A star-studded cast – comprising the likes of Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Simon Pegg, and Jason Isaacs – stretches its collective vocal cords as the mouthpieces for various old-school animatronic puppets. There are the good guys (the Gelflings) and the baddies (the Skeksis), and they must battle to save their planet Thra from utter destruction.

This tension is made all the more impactful thanks to the tangibility and sheer physical presence that every uniquely crafted puppet brings, but the voices are the ones that really contribute to these characters’ personalities. Awkwafina depicts the Collector, a pustule-covered Skeksis who looks and sounds very much like a classic old hag. Here, the actress trades her distinctive husky tone for a more strained, doleful alternative.

This extreme experiment in vocal fry even works so well in her favor that she barely sounds like herself at times. As Awkwafina fans come to expect from her, it’s always a raucous occasion whenever she gets to be a complain-y pessimist. The proceedings are simply more riotous coupled with the visual grotesqueness of her character in Age of Resistance.


Awkwafina is Nora From Queens

Ultimately, Awkwafina’s claim to fame comes full circle to the promise of influential Asian-American representation that she declared in Bad Rap. Her Comedy Central show, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, follows a simple premise depicting a fictionalized account of Awkwafina’s life.

Her character, who is also named Nora, is oftentimes lazy, uninspired, and insecure. Living at home with a long-suffering father and eccentric grandmother in the house she was raised in Queens, she grapples with adulthood and its many facets over the course of the show.

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens quickly and effectively tunes into various nuances between the lines of its basic idiosyncratic idea. Awkwafina navigates a myriad of daily stresses, from job-hunting and drug use to the conflicting obligation of filial piety and a search for self-actualization. She poses soulful questions about responsibility and love (for the self and others).

As a result, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens becomes less about definitive affirmations of personal success as it is about appreciating a complicated journey towards it. This beautifully supplements the series’ sobering and hilarious moments alike. And hey, Awkwafina even gets to make a couple of in-jokes for good measure; there’s a “My Vag” reference in one of the episodes.

There is no doubt that Awkwafina is polarizing and probably will be for a while. Although she seemingly easily adapts to mainstream success after a lengthy period of fringe activity, her roots still follow her to this very day. Her image is one that evokes discordant representations that have been distilled for over a decade.

Awkwafina’s trajectory across multiple arenas in the entertainment industry undoubtedly turned her into a household name. She is poised for even more widespread exposure once studio projects like Raya and the Last Dragon and the Marvel vehicle Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hit theaters.

Yet, so much of her public persona isn’t solely defined by fiction. Awkwafina’s onscreen life mirrors the circumstances that shaped her as a young performer. Therefore, audiences can’t help but acknowledge her misappropriation of Black culture – they must do so.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t detract from the fact of her moving forward in Hollywood with her very evident talents. As it stands, Awkwafina is observably in a constant state of flux, making her filmography especially dynamic, if also thoroughly challenging.

(Contributor)

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.