Documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña (best known for codirecting Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which showed at Sundance in 1989) changes gears and takes to the road. Tajima-Peña travels coast to coast on a mission to locate the media’s infamous “model minority.” Instead she encounters a rich landscape of personalities who have escaped the straitjacket of stereotype. The cast of characters redefines all expectation. Victor Wong offers an example (from his rebellion against his father to his fame in Jack Kerouac’s writing) of the ways Asian-Americans have defied predictions. The Seoul Brothers, a pair of Seattle rappers, try to balance their musical aspirations with the strict family life of their Korean parents. In New Orleans, the Burtanog sisters describe life as eighth-generation Filipinas whose family always considered itself “white” under a binary system of Jim Crow race laws.
With the filmmaker herself acting as narrator, My America keeps its tone resolutely upbeat and inquisitive—she’s a roving reporter with insider credentials who takes us along for the ride. Like Freud, she knows the value of a good joke; unlike him, she doesn’t mind poking fun at herself. Yet her strategy makes her message no less serious. The real road that Tajima-Peña is traversing is the delicate one separating public and private, group identity and individual personality, and she ain’t no tourist. If Asian-Americans have too often been cast as spectators in the drama of black/white America, My America restores their centrality. Tajima-Peña has produced a convincing argument that the road movie—our quintessential American genre—is a natural “vehicle” for the multicultural experience.
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