- Gnawing at the Whiteness of Cinema Studies:On Asian American Media Now
Without ambiguity, without ambivalence, we must reject the minoritization of Asian American cinema studies. To relegate Asian American cinema to the margins of our discipline is an epistemological problem that truly disserves an increasingly transnational and nonwhite student body whose presence demands that we halt a myopic understanding of our enterprise as unified. This article argues for increasing the study of Asian American and other racial, ethnic cinema traditions—especially in presenting how filmmakers of color produce and audiences of color watch differently. To recognize the distinct investments filmmakers and spectators of color bring to our discipline is to decenter whiteness, to diversify film and media departments with faculty trained to understand racial difference, and to enable us to see Asian American cinema as a harbinger for the future of the discipline.
To invest in cinema is to write oneself and one's communities into history, argued the late Loni Ding in her essay "Strategies of an Asian American Filmmaker."1 Indeed, the so-called Yellow Power, or Asian American civil rights, movement looked toward the invisibility, subordination, and misrepresentations and distortions of Asian Americans as a testimony to their larger marginality in US society. Established fifty years ago, "Asian American" as both an identity category and a genre of cinema are politically necessary fictions. To understand this is to grasp the changing subjectivities of our globalized era and the different struggles for representation that various people of color have engaged in from the very beginnings of cinema itself. The name "Asian American" registers a grievance for Asian and Asian American people in addressing their experiences of domestic racism, xenophobia, transnational displacement, and colonialism. It identifies a Hollywood tradition of how ethnic and racial groups who live under this sign are treated unfairly: Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Dragon Lady, Lotus Blossom, Prostitute with a Heart of Gold, Martial Artist, [End Page 119] Schoolgirl. These stereotypes create a particular viewing experience that necessitates a historical approach in framing our understanding of films and of looking at the cultural context that creates films.
In the context of US civil rights and third-world liberation struggles in the 1970s, Asian American cinema started as a movement to protest Asian Americans' representational status as the butt of the joke in Hollywood films. As Robert Lee argues in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Hollywood installed images of Asians in America into forever foreign, perverse, and caricatured stereotypes.2 Filmmaker, poet, and editor Russell Leong's book Moving the Image: Asian Pacific American Media Arts documented the activist framework motivating many of the Asian American cinema movement's pioneers.3 Their works intended to inspire action through developing an artful aesthetic language. They included the work of award-winning documentarian and organizer Loni Ding (cofounder of the Center for Asian American Media), documentarian Bob Nakamura (cofounder of Visual Communications), the queer experimental documentary filmmaker Richard Fung, the experimental and documentary video makers Valerie Soe and Rea Tajiri, and the Oscar-nominated documentarians Christine Choy and Renee Tajima. These pioneers also worked in higher education. Loni Ding raised cohorts of filmmakers in her Third World Media course in the Department of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley. A longtime professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, Bob Nakamura nurtured generations of Asian American filmmakers before reestablishing the EthnoCommunications Program at UCLA's Department of Asian American Studies. Richard Fung continues to work as a professor and cultural activist in Toronto. In California, Valerie Soe teaches at San Francisco State University as a professor in Asian American studies, and Renee Tajima-Peña produces and teaches as a professor in ethno-communications at UCLA and formerly in community studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. On the East Coast, Rea Tajiri works as professor of film and media arts at Temple University, and Christine Choy serves as professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
From the 1980s to the present, Asian American cinema has moved smoothly between nonprofit organizations and universities to industry and independent media locations. The circuit loops between festivals...