Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu
LA Asian Pacific, DisOrient, Philadelphia Asian American, Austin Asian American
An in-depth consideration of the discriminatory US law that targeted Chinese nationals.
In 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only federal legislation explicitly naming a specific nationality as undesireable and restricting its immigration and citizenship rights in America. For Chinese nationals who had already toiled on US soil, it prevented them from seeking naturalized US citizenship or from sponsoring family members to join them in the promised land of the free. For Chinese who wished to seek a new life in America, it quashed that dream. For the children of Chinese nationals born in the US, it created bureaucratic hurdles and questions around the validity of their US citizenship, so much so that it led to a Supreme Court case with ramifications for anyone born on US soil. Directors Burns and Yu trace the history, origins, and impact of the discriminatory law and those that followed which targeted Chinese and Chinese-Americans, placing this largely forgotten part of US history within the larger context of societal and legislative strictures on what constituted American identity, and how race and prejudice factored in to these decisions. At the same time, the film reflects on the resistance the Chinese community in America demonstrated when faced with these oppressive laws, from filing legal challenges to refusing to cooperate with racist registration programs. While hewing exactly to conventional storytelling and drowning in a sea of talking heads, the film feels comprehensive and informative, and carries with it an unspoken commentary on present-day attempts to restrict citizenship and immigration on racial, religious, or national lines.