Imagine a movie.
Directed by an American.
Starring American actors.
Set in America.
Produced by an American company.
Distributed by an American company.
About Americans chasing the so-called “American Dream”.
Now imagine that being called a “foreign” film.
You don’t have to keep imagining, because that’s exactly what happened with ‘Minari’ tonight, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) announced that ‘Minari’ would compete in the foreign language film category and not in the primary best picture category at the Golden Globes.
‘Minari’ is a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung about a family of South Korean immigrants chasing the “American Dream” in the 1980s. Chung himself was born in Denver, Colorado and raised in Lincoln, Arkansas, while ‘Minari’ itself is explicitly set in Arkansas and filmed in Oklahoma. English is spoken in the film, and according to those who have already seen the film, there are even scenes in it where the characters learn to speak English in an attempt to better fit in, which is all too common an immigrant experience.
So why exactly was ‘Minari’ determined to be a foreign language film? “Because it is primarily in Korean,” as Variety reports. But there are various problems with this reasoning.
Take for example ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ the Quentin Tarantino film which was nominated in the main Best Motion Picture category at the 2010 Golden Globes. Though “roughly only thirty percent of the film is spoken in English,” with either French or German being the dominant language spoken in the film, it was not classified as a foreign language film. The film, shot in Germany and France, dominantly featured European characters speaking languages other than English.
‘The Artist,’ a French film with a French director, led by French actors, produced by French companies, and distributed by Warner Bros. France, with zero dialogue in English, actually won in the Best Motion Picture category at the 2012 Golden Globes.
These are but a few examples in the history of the Golden Globes where so long as a film is White, it is not considered “foreign,” even when it literally is.
Many folks were reminded of the HFPA’s decision to categorize Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” as a foreign language film this past year, yet another semi-autobiographical film by an Asian American director about a uniquely American experience about an Asian American character who does in fact speak English. Many directors, film critics, and folks in general expressed frustration at the classification, hoping the HFPA would reconsider or make their decisions differently in the future. ‘Minari’ shows that is simply not the case. Instead, we are reminded of the unspoken hierarchy of languages in America — one that we cannot seem to escape.
Even if we would like to dismiss them as irrelevant, the Golden Globes are a prominent cultural institution whose awards are seen as some of the most important in film-making. And when an institution like this reminds us time and time again that Asian American stories are “foreign,” while European ones are not, it perpetuates the belief that we are “other,” that we are fundamentally unable to be considered American because of our race and the languages that we speak.
It’s for this reason (among many others) that we view such institutions as racist. When films explicitly about European characters, set in Europe, with minimal or no English dialogue can be considered for the primary Best Picture awards, while films about Asian American characters who speak English and even set in America are considered under the Foreign Language designation, what message does that send to Asian Americans? What message does it send us about the validity of our experiences as American? When we talk about racism in our American culture, this is quite literally it. From the top of our entertainment industry, we are told that we will forever be seen as foreign, regardless of whether we were born and raised in the United States, regardless of how uniquely American we perceive our own experiences to be.
None of this is implicit or imagined — it has tangible impacts on Asian Americans. It tells us that even if we write the stories we want to write, even if they are about our experiences here in the United States, our work will still be considered foreign, other. Quite literally so — Lulu Wang and Lee Isaac Chung can never say that ‘The Farewell’ and ‘Minari’ won them Best Picture for Drama at the Golden Globes. It’s not an accolade that they have been allowed to hold, and it sends a message to any other Asian American director that you too may likely be denied this as well. It sets a ceiling on what we can expect to achieve in this industry; it reflects the “bamboo ceiling” that limits what Asian folks have been shown we can achieve in every industry. And that’s racism. Through and through.
What still bugs me — and so many others — about all of this is the expectation that something being American is synonymous with being English-speaking. The Golden Globes defines in its rules that a Foreign Language Film is one in which at least 50% of its dialogue is in a language other than English, which is an implicit concession that any non-English language is “foreign”. (Note that for a film to be eligible for Best Motion Picture — Drama or Best Motion Picture — Comedy, it must have 50% or more English dialogue, though we know that films such as ‘The Artist’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’ did not meet this threshold.) But what makes a language “foreign” in America, as opposed to not?
As many have pointed out, English is not the official language in America, and there is in fact no federally-declared domestic language. Many multilingual countries have multiple official languages: Canada, for example, has both English and French defined by law as its official languages. The United States has no such law, and the “English Language Unity Act” (H.R. 997) to make English an official language has never been approved in the federal legislature.
The history of the United States is one that has always been multilingual, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2017, only 78% of households speak English only, meaning that 22% of households speak a non-English language. This includes about 41 million people who speak Spanish at home and 3.5 million people who speak any of the languages within the Chinese language family (i.e., Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc.). There are nearly one hundred million Americans who speak a non-English language as part of the domestic experience.
When so many people in the United States speak a non-English language, we have to ask if it makes sense for the Golden Globes to have a Foreign Language category that only centers English. In fact, up until 1986, this award was known as Best Foreign Film; at that point in time, the HFPA actually changed the award to Foreign Language Film specifically to allow non-American English films to win in the primary Best Picture categories. With so many non-English languages spoken in the United States and no official language, we have to ask, shouldn’t any language film be allowed to compete for Best Picture?
And we can go deeper. We must remember that English is itself a foreign language to this land — one brought over by colonizers and imperialists. The history of America, before the ~244 years of the United States, was not English in its origins. From the perspective of the Indigenous peoples who were the first inhabitants of North America, English has always been a foreign language, and to this day, it still is. It is the language of a colonial power, one that murdered millions for dominance, one that was foreign even to the millions of slaves on whose backs this country was built. America, at its core and at its foundation, is not English.
And yet, it is the language that we are forced to adopt, that we are forced to speak in order to be considered American. And even when we do, we still aren’t. So much of the discourse I’ve heard around ‘Minari’ and ‘The Farewell’ bothers me, because it has been forced to involve explaining how these films include English in order for them not to be considered “foreign,” when this should never have been and never really was the criteria to begin with. The Golden Globes’ requirement that a non-Foreign Best Picture film be one where English is dominantly spoken is itself a logic based in colonization, and not one actually based on the lives and realities of those who live in America. It is a continued form of colonization, and I demand the HFPA not only categorize ‘Minari’ in the appropriate Best Picture category, but also do away with the distinction between what is considered Foreign Language and what is not.
I think a lot about what it means to be American and how so many of us strive so hard to fit the box that we’re told to squeeze ourselves into in order to be American. I think a lot about how — just like the family in ‘Minari’ — we try to do things like learn English in order to believe that we are more American, when even if we do, we are still considered “foreign”. Here I remember that “foreign” means “of a country other than one’s own”. But if America sees me, an Asian American born and raised here who has never lived in any country otherwise, as “foreign”, what country is my own? When the Golden Globes prescribes that the very movies about experiences like my own are foreign, does it implicitly argue that there is some other country to which I belong? I cannot think of such a country, unfortunately. Even if I were to travel to Taiwan or Indonesia, where my parents are from, I would be perceived a foreigner there, one who doesn’t speak the language quite right, much like Billi in “The Farewell”. Where is home when the place you believe to be home doesn’t even see you as its resident?
This is not just about being an immigrant in America. When European films are nominated in the non-Foreign Best Picture categories, but Asian American ones are not, and when European languages are seen as American, but languages like bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin are replied to with, “Speak American,” it’s clear this is about race. This is about how the Golden Globes — and so much of Amerikkka in general — does not view non-White individuals, languages, and experiences as American. Even if we were born and raised here like ‘Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung, even if we tell a story that is so quintessentially about trying to become more American, we are still not considered such.
I understand why so many Asian critics overseas see the endeavors of Asian Americans to be recognized in America to be a chase for Whiteness, because so much of it at the moment is, and it is futile. But it would be a very dangerous oversimplification to leave it at that. That’s why I want to make an important distinction between two sorts of arguments that I have seen tonight in regards to the ‘Minari’ news. The first argument is one that centers on the fact that ‘Minari’ includes English, as if this — and other elements of Whiteness — are what makes America. This is the futile endeavor, but so many of us Asian Americans are still conditioned to believe that the pursuit of Whiteness and all its norms and standards is the way to be truly recognized as American. The second argument, which I hope I touched on in this essay, is that English isn’t what makes something American. It’s the argument that we need to decouple American-ness from Whiteness and see that it’s not Asian Americans who need to become more American, it’s our understanding of what it means to be American that needs to already include Asian Americans. That we should not need to budge in who we are, because who we are already defines the American experience. But many people are not here yet. This is why it’s so important for cultural institutions like the Golden Globes to change. This is why we fight for them to change: not for us to have to change our stories to fit their criteria of Whiteness, but for them to have to de-center Whiteness in their criteria. And to show that this is possible.
I imagine what makes the family in ‘Minari’ American, like many of us Asian Americans, and like the movie itself, is not that we try to fit the existing mold of what it means to be American as defined by Whiteness, but that we already are, and what we’re fighting for is for the rest of the country to realize.