Bearing in mind that the new miniseries Asian Americans is a PBS documentary offers a clear sense of how (and why) the series looks, sounds, and moves the way it does. There’s an instantly recognizable house style to these films, mostly unchanged since Ken Burns set many of its principles in place in the early ’90s. We know all of the tools: pans across old photographs, a mixture of archival and contemporary interviews from both witnesses to history and modern-day experts, a narrator speaking in a soothing yet authoritative voice.
Only the subject matter differs between such documentaries — in this case, over the course of five episodes, filmmakers S. Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir, and Grace Lee survey the history of people of Asian descent in the US, from the late 1800s through today. It’s easy to dismiss (and even easier to parody) such work as aesthetically simplistic or overly academic. But while such critiques may be fair on purely formal grounds, they miss the ongoing value of projects like this.
If you are a reasonably well-informed person, or have done a good share of independent reading and research on any of the topics at hand — which range from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the emergence of the first Asian actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the emergence of “Asian American” as a coherent identity group out of ’60s political activism — then the series won’t teach you much new. But considering a documentary solely in terms of its educational utility is misguided, even with one that will generally be viewed in an educational context. Asian Americans draws out this history through personal, often deeply emotional testimony. (A good deal of its narrative, after all, remains living history.)
Often, these points of view illustrate the contradictions of the experiences of marginalized groups in the US. The final episode, “Breaking Through,” extensively covers the climate which produced the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles during the early ’90s, and how racial tensions of the time were not just between white and Black citizens but also Black and Korean communities, stoked greatly by Soon Ja Du’s killing of Latasha Harlins. Events like these produce no easy narratives, only ambivalence or anger about the tangled prejudices and privileges with US society. (One illuminating anecdote relates how Black protesters attacked Korean shops, while white police did nothing to protect them.) That’s to say nothing of the ways that the mainstream perceptions (that is, perceptions dictated by white people) of how “white,” or white-adjacent, Asians are or aren’t have shifted over the decades.
Most vitally, Asian Americans is not afraid to note the parallels between the events it covers and contemporary issues. Most obvious is how the history of anti-Asian xenophobia during the late 1800s and early 1900s dovetails neatly with today’s prejudice against migrants from Central America and West Asia, and how the Japanese American internment camps presage the modern US refugee detention centers. While the show was produced too late to address the issue at length, the new wave of vitriol directed at Asians stoked by the current COVID-19 pandemic has its predecessors in the film as well. As history recurs, we should take heed of resources such as this.
All five episodes of Asian Americans are available to stream on PBS.