5 Movies to Explore Asian and Pacific American Heritage

asian american pacific islander heritage month

In honor of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in May, we are revisiting our watchlist of shows that will help educate and inform you about the experiences of Asian and Pacific Americans.

Asian/Pacific is a broad term that encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia), and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Easter Island).

According to NALP data, the number of Asian associates at law firms has essentially plateaued since 2019, despite a one-year increase in 2021. The number of Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander associates remains at less than 1%. Asian attorneys make up 4.6% of partners at law firms, compared to 4.3% in 2021, while Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander attorneys made up just 0.07% of all partners.

As we have previously discussed during Black History Month, members of the legal community can increase their cultural competence by educating themselves on how diverse experiences are intertwined with our legal system. This education will improve your practice by providing a better understanding of why our society and justice system function as they do today.

These movies depict portions of the Asian and Pacific American experience—and some are recommended by members of the Illinois legal community specifically for your entertainment and education.

1. Come See the Paradise (1990)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

This film depicts the Japanese American internment during World War II following the events of Pearl Harbor. While told through a love story, the plot weaves in “searing memories” of the loss of civil liberties that Japanese Americans faced before, during, and after the internment period, according to Sandra Yamate, CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.

“When the film came out, I had the opportunity to attend a screening with other (mostly older) Japanese Americans. Before the film began, as with any community gathering, people were socializing and networking in the theater lobby. Afterward, there was this stunned silence,” Yamate said.

For lawyers, who may have been exposed to the events of the film through studying the Japanese American coram nobis cases in Constitutional Law, this film highlights a recent historical event that has lingering effects on the community.

2. Minari (2021)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Commission Vice Chair John Kim recommended “Minari” for its impactful portrayal of the Korean American experience.

The multi-generational, Korean immigrant family in this film embodies resiliency and familial support. Set in Arkansas in the early 80s, the plot follows the family’s search for the American dream while incorporating aspects of Korean culture.

The film won multiple awards at Sundance, a Golden Globe, several Academy Award nominations, and earned a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Lawyers can learn more about traditional East Asian family structures alongside rural community values.

3. Kumu Hina (2014)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Some traditional Indigenous cultures throughout Hawaii and the Pacific Islands recognize a third gender, “a place in the middle” between male and female. Artist, performer, and activist Hina Wong-Kalu identifies with this traditional gender and as a modern transgender woman. “Kumu Hina” is a documentary about a year of instruction between Kumu (Teacher) Hina and a student who wants to join an all-male hula group, but also identifies as “in the middle.”

The award-winning documentary is an important exploration of LGBT individuals in the Hawaiian, Tongan, and other Pacific Islander cultures.

According to NALP data, LGBT lawyers overall grew by half of a percentage point from 2021 to 2022 (the largest year-over-year increase in the history of the report). Asian/Pacific American and LGBT individuals and those at the intersection of those identities have historically experienced lower senses of belonging within the profession.

Attorneys have a responsibility to educate themselves on the experiences of members of the Asian/Pacific American and LGBT communities to better understand both colleagues and clients.

4. Picture Bride (1995)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Picture brides refer to arranged marriages in exchange for passage to the western U.S. and Canada from East Asian countries in the early 20th century. The bride in this film travels from Japan to Hawaii and navigates plantation life. The film depicts a possibly lesser-known historical period and the important bonds among Asian American women.

“It’s beautifully filmed and I love that the characters aren’t just stereotyped tropes,” Yamate said. “It’s a great testament to the Japanese American cultural embrace of what is called gaman, which embodies inner strength and perseverance, often for the future generations.”

Attorneys from different cultures are less frequently exposed to specific cultural values like gaman that may make up Japanese colleagues’ and clients’ backgrounds. Watching diverse media may be one way to help bridge the cultural divide.

5. The Farewell (2019)

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

This film was written, directed, and produced by Asian American Lulu Wang, and is based on her personal experiences.

The film takes place in the U.S. and China and highlights the cultural differences between the Chinese American family and their Chinese grandmother. “Collectivism” is among the values that make up the motivation for the family’s actions throughout the movie.

Receiving multiple awards, including a Golden Globe for Awkwafina’s performance, and a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film was praised for its authentic and emotional storytelling.

What movies, TV shows, podcasts, YouTube series, etc., are you watching and listening to in order to explore Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month? Share in the comments below.

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