“Minari” follows a Korean-American family trying to achieve the American Dream in the 1980s. Jacob and Monica Yi move their family from California to Arkansas, where Jacob hopes to grow Korean produce for vendors in Dallas. The critically acclaimed film is directed by an American director, produced by an American production company, and features an American as its lead actor, yet it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes instead of Best Picture. Why?
Because it’s an Asian American film that features mostly Korean dialogue. That line of reasoning came as a surprise to fans of the breakout film — especially since the United States is supposed to be a nation of immigrants. But what may come as a surprise to many, is there’s actually no official language in the United States.
In an interview with NBC News, “Minari” star Steven Yeun said, “We can’t expect rules and institutions to really capture the nuance and the complexity of real-life — that America is not just shaped by the English language. It’s actually a confluence of so many things. I think for us to have made something that is challenging these notions and attempting, hopefully, to expand the understanding of what these things are, that’s great. I’m glad people are waking up to it.”
Yeun’s reaction to this disappointing decision by the Golden Globes brings us to a much broader question about identity: What does it truly mean to be American? You would think living in the United States would be enough to be considered an American, but that’s never been enough for minorities in this country. When you’re a minority, you often have to act a certain way and talk a certain way (always in English) to be considered “American.”
No matter what Asian Americans achieve, they’re constantly othered by American institutions, and “Minari” is a prime example of that. Of course, this isn’t unique to Asian Americans — all minorities face this kind of discrimination in a variety of ways. With the ongoing hate crimes committed by racists against Asian Americans hitting a fever pitch and finally garnering nationwide media attention that ultimately helped spark rallies against anti-Asian hate, the treatment of “Minari” by Hollywood gatekeepers is something that Asian American filmmakers should no longer accept. Just because a story is about Asian Americans, that doesn’t make it any less American than “The Great Gatsby” or “Citizen Kane.” Those classic American stories highlighted what the American Dream looked like for many in the early 20th century. “Minari” depicted what the American Dream has been for many immigrants over the past couple of centuries. Immigrant stories and BIPOC stories are American stories.
This is the second consecutive year where the Golden Globes categorized an Asian American film as a foreign language film. In 2020, Lulu Wang’s transcendent film about a Chinese American woman traveling to China to say goodbye to her grandma, “The Farewell,” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Golden Globes as well. A year after the Golden Globes’ disappointing decision, Wang tweeted, “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes Americans as only English-speaking.”
According to Vanity Fair, “[a] source with the HFPA (Hollywood Foreign Press Association) confirmed that ‘Minari‘ was voluntarily submitted to the foreign-language category in November, but that the rules of the Golden Globes do mandate that ‘any film with at least 50% of non-English dialogue goes into the foreign language category.'” That argument doesn’t hold any water based on how the Golden Globes have treated past films (aside from “The Farewell”). The majority of the dialogue in “Babel” and “Inglourious Basterds” was spoken in foreign languages, but both of those films were nominated for Best Picture. Why’s that? Well, it’s difficult to say for certain, but here’s one hypothesis: the stars of those films were popular among American critics and they weren’t Asian.
In any case, the Golden Globes’ inconsistency highlights that many in Hollywood clearly get preferential treatment over everyone else. However, when you look back at the history of Asians in this country and see things like the Chinese Exclusion Act (a real federal law that was in place between 1882-1943), the treatment of “Minari” starts to make a lot more sense. Moreover, the HFPA is well-known for its lack of diversity. The HFPA has zero Black members. Dr. Shaun Harper, the HFPA’s former diversity and inclusion adviser, recently resigned after his proposal to add 13 Black members to the HFPA was met with criticism by members of the organization.
There clearly needs to be a culture change in Hollywood. Asian Americans need true representation in television and film. It’s been happening slowly thanks to films like “Minari,” but there’s still a lot more work to be done. It’s so important for Asian American kids to be able to watch authentic Asian American characters that don’t fall victim to the Hollywood stereotypes of yesteryear. And while representation in entertainment is extremely important, what will be even more impactful in Asian Americans’ everyday lives is to continue fighting against the systemic racism that’s deeply rooted in American institutions until real change is achieved.
To bring this full circle, at least “Minari” won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the most memorable acceptance speech of the night:
As we gear up for the Academy Awards, it’s comforting to know that the Academy got this one right at least. “Minari” is nominated for Best Picture, Yeun is up for Best Actor, and Lee Isaac Chung is nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Let’s hope the Golden Globes catches on and starts categorizing Asian American stories as American stories next year.