Framing life as a film script, and herself and each graduate as main characters in their own movies, screenwriter and emerging director Adele Lim ’96 laid out what she’d learned from each of her life’s “acts” in her Commencement Address to Emerson’s Class of 2022.
Lim, co-writer of the blockbuster romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians and the Oscar-nominated animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, as well as a writer and producer of numerous primetime TV dramas and director of an as-yet untitled feature film, also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at this year’s Commencement Ceremony, held Sunday, May 8, in Boston University’s Agganis Arena. Just over 1,000 students received bachelor’s degrees this year.
Read: Snapshot: Meet the Class of 2022
Also receiving honorary degrees were musician, composer, and music producer Toshi Reagon, and Steven Samuels, Emerson Trustee, real estate developer, and film producer.
Lim said she was trying to work on her speech, and procrastinating, as all writers do, by watching TikTok videos. The influencers she was watching threw around the term, “main character energy,” meaning someone who is narcissistic and attention-seeking, but really it just means someone who is the “hero of [their] own story.”
“If we are the main characters, maybe our lives can be broken down into classic, three-act story structures …This moment is your Act One,” Lim told the graduates seated before her. “It’s the set-up part of the movie, where you tell the audience who the main character and what you want.”
The next part, the “Call to Adventure,” for her, was the day she drove to Los Angeles to be a writer with the “cute guy upstairs” instead of returning to her familiar life in her native Malaysia. The moment when the adventure begins is the “drive to Act Two,” she said, and that’s when “challenges become apparent.”
The world will give you many excuses to feel like a victim, Lim told the graduates, and you will be told no many times for many reasons.
“Learn to expect this. Expect things will not always be fair, and resist the late-stage capitalist, Squid Games systems we live in that pit us against each other,” she said.
Over the next 15 years, Lim worked her way up through the industry and eventually landed the opportunity to run her own show – her dream since arriving in LA. But that didn’t work out.
Then, the director of that show asked her if she’d be interested in adapting the screenplay for Crazy Rich Asians, and she learned that what she wanted wasn’t necessarily what she needed. Up to this point, she had mostly written for white male leads.
“In writing for Crazy Rich Asians, I found what I actually needed was to write for characters who actually looked like me,” she said.
The film was an enormous success, Lim said, and “for the first time, my foreignness and otherness was a boon and the world was actually eating it up.” In a movie, that’s when everything goes awry.
The studio hired her to co-write the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, but she soon learned that she would be paid one-tenth of what her male co-writer would make, because she had only written one other feature film – never mind that the film was a blockbuster and she had 15 years of TV writing experience behind her.
“It wasn’t just about money, it was what the money said. This money said I was worth one-tenth of what my co-writer was,” she said.
“If I, as an established Asian female writer could not get equal pay for a movie with ‘Asians’ in the title, what chance do the rest of us have? So I walked away,” Lim said to applause.
That act, her Act Three, which she feared would result in career-damaging blowback, ended up giving other women and BIPOC writers courage to speak out, and “we became each other’s fiercest supporters and advocates.”
“No one in their right mind wants their life to get blown apart but sometimes that’s what we need,” Lim said.
Soon, she was asked to co-write the screenplay for an animated Disney film about an Asian warrior princess, Raya and the Last Dragon. That was the “bookend” of her life’s movie – so far.
“I am far from done, but what I hope for myself, for all of us, for all of you, is what all great stories have: a journey that is authentic and meaningful, and if we’re lucky, one that touches the lives of others,” she said.
“The world is waiting for you, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how your stories turn out.”
Toshi Reagon, co-writer of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, performed at ArtsEmerson in April 2022, sang her song, Freedom, upon receiving her honorary Doctor of Humane Letters:
“Freedom, when you call my name, I wonder could you call again? Call again and I’ll answer … You must live among the stars. It’s kind of hard in a world like ours. Freedom – over here. Oh I know it’s not always clear. Who’s gonna stand up with you? I will.”
Steven Samuels recalled being asked to join the Emerson Board of Trustees by Past President Jackie Liebergott about 15 minutes after being introduced to her. All he really knew of Emerson was WERS, and he didn’t really understand why she was asking him.
But after 15 years of transforming the College and its corner of Boston Common, alongside his growing film production company, he began to see the parallels between development and storytelling, and most importantly, he came to understand Emerson.
“The real takeaway for me is what I’ve learned from all of you. An indoctrination into the way Emersonians think … curious, bold, risktakers who speak their mind, that creative gene that makes it hard to keep still… I may not have gotten it 15 years ago speaking with Jackie, but I sure get it now,” Samuels said.
Valeria Ocando ’22, a Business of Creative Enterprises major, was the student speaker. She invited her classmates to “shape the culture by telling your story.”
“Have you ever thought of the power that each one of you holds in your hands? As we have seen, the world is upside down right now, but I believe that a different world cannot be created by indifferent people,” Ocando said. “If you want to be an agent of change that I know we all are, we cannot be indifferent about what is going on around the world.”
Interim President William Gilligan, in his first commencement in that role, spoke to a class that was buffeted by a pandemic, a national racial reckoning, a tumultuous election, and countless other crises, large and small.
“I admire your sense of community, of social justice, fairness, and your willingness to use your voice in the pursuit of those ideals….”
“During your short time in college, political discourse has grown more divided, racial and socioeconomic disparities have widened, the climate crisis looms larger. But those same years have also brought examples of incredible generosity, ingenuity, and have highlighted common goals that resonated widely among you and are the makings of true and lasting change.”
In addition to the speeches and tributes, several student and faculty awards were presented:
2022 Teaching Awards:
The Helaine and Stanley Miller Award for Outstanding Teaching: Assistant Professor Deion Hawkins, Communication Studies
The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching: senior affiliated faculty member Brad Lemack, Emerson Los Angeles
The Alumni Award for Teaching Innovation: Associate Professor Joanne Lasker, Communication Sciences and Disorders
Conferring of Emeritus Status: Associate Professor Marsha Della-Giustina, Journalism; Senior Writer-in-Residence Richard Hoffman, Writing, Literature and Publishing; Professor Pamela Painter, Writing, Literature and Publishing; Senior Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Scott Wheeler, Performing Arts
Dean’s Award: Mary Kuczkowski, Communication Studies
President’s Citation: Omar Mardini, Performing Arts