Bao Nguyen felt helpless in the weeks after the mass shootings in Atlanta.
The “Be Water” director had been helping escort Asian American elders in Los Angeles amid a reported uptick of racist attacks. The Atlanta shootings, he said, created a “galvanizing moment.”
Six of the eight people killed — Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng — were women of Asian descent. The 21-year-old white suspect is awaiting trial.
“It took a few days to realize I haven’t had this opportunity to grieve and just sort of process what happened in Atlanta because it had been building for so long,” Nguyen told the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz.
Watch the discussion in the player above.
Anti-Asian sentiments have been acutely felt throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 4,000 hate incidents, including verbal and physical attacks, along with other forms of discrimination, took place across the country in the past year, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate.
The anti-Asian hate seen throughout the pandemic also follows a long history of violence and discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Nguyen, with his platform in film and television, wanted to remind — or teach — Americans that anti-Asian hate is ingrained in American history.
This is the starting point for Nguyen’s short film PSA, titled “Together.” The three-minute video, which features celebrities like comedian and actor Ken Jeong, star of the upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” Simu Liu and “Black Panther” and “Us” star Winston Duke, opens with actor Olivia Munn holding a burning candle. The six Asian women killed in Atlanta “were grandmother, mothers, daughters, sisters and wives,” she says.
“They were killed because they were Asian. But anti-Asian violence is not new. It is part of our collective memory.”
Munn then lights Jeong’s candle, who intones another historical event of anti-Asian racism. From the Page Act of 1875, which barred Chinese women from entering the U.S., to the violence Muslims and South Asian Americans faced after the 9/11 attacks, the PSA — candlelight to candlelight — shows how all these events inflamed future hostilities.
“Memory is the antidote to death,” Duke says near the end, adding that there’s an answer to silence: solidarity.
Nguyen spoke on how the PSA came together, and why he wanted to thread all these past anti-Asian events in U.S. history in his message.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What brought you to filmmaking in the first place?
Nguyen grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, Maryland. As the son of Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S., “I’m definitely always thinking about the sacrifice my parents made,” he said, “and this is sort of a cliche to many immigrant families — of not following the creative path because they think that they have to either be a doctor or a lawyer.”
Nguyen said he never explicitly asked his parents whether he could be an artist, but over time he was allowed to pursue filmmaking.
“I’ve always been sort of living right outside the seat of American power, political power,” Nguyen said. “I’m always interested in telling stories that could enlighten and shine a light on issues that maybe people weren’t so aware of,” he added.
Nguyen said he’s grateful to be able to tell stories about Asian Americans because “we felt like we’ve been invisible, even though we’ve been speaking for a long time. … I think people have been listening and, for better or for worse, in this moment and hopefully in this movement, things are changing and people of our community feel like they can speak up and talk about not just what’s happening now in our community, but what’s been really stirring up for centuries.”
The group Stop AAPI Hate has tracked nearly 4,000 incidents over the past year. The majority of them have been in California where you live. What has this last year, in that context, been like for you?
“For me, I just remember when it started brewing, obviously when the pandemic started,” Nguyen said.
The filmmaker said he was traveling from Asia at the end of February 2020, after spending time with his parents who live in Vietnam.
At that time, Nguyen said, he was wearing a mask because of the novel coronavirus and he got dirty looks from people on the plane.
“I was honestly scared to cough,” he said, for fear of drawing attention to himself as a person of Asian descent and inviting judgment, “and I think those are like those microaggressions that we have to talk about. We can’t be ourselves. We can’t just live our lives and breathe and be normal.”
Now, amid the conversations over the violence against the Asian American community, “I look back at it, and I’m still very aware of the times where people might cross the street if they see me. And again, this is something that many BIPOC communities have faced for many years,” he said.
Sometimes, the Asian American community diminishes the racism against them, he added, because they don’t think it’s “strong enough.”
“I think there’s racism on all spectrums, and we can be offended, we can be hurt, we can be harassed in different ways and we have to speak out against it,” Nguyen said, adding that the moment has taught him to reflect on his past experiences and how they’ve changed him.
The filmmaker said he talked with many of his Asian American female friends after the mass shootings in Atlanta.
The news of those shootings “almost triggered this sense of trauma for them that they didn’t know that they had internally.”
“And the idea that that wasn’t a hate crime because the perpetrator said it wasn’t a hate crime — again — those sort of comments where you value someone’s word because of where they come from, rather than someone else’s word — it diminished our value and how we feel seen,” Nguyen said.
He wants his work to reflect the perspective of the Asian American community.
“We’re here. We’ve been here. We’ve experienced this in our lifetime, and we can speak out about it.”
You made a short film, calling for people to stop AAPI hate. How did that come together, and why did you decide to put your energy behind that right now?
Nguyen said even before the mass shootings in Atlanta he was feeling helpless because Asian American elders were being attacked randomly. He lives in the Arts District in Los Angeles, which is near Little Tokyo. He said he’d help escort Asian American elders wherever they were going, trying to help them as much as possible.
Knowing he had a platform because of his work within the world of film and television, Nguyen said he wanted to “activate myself in some way.”
“It took a few days to realize I haven’t had this opportunity to grieve and just sort of process what happened in Atlanta because it had been building for so long, given the pandemic and giving all these anti-Asian hate crimes, but Atlanta was such a galvanizing moment,” he said.
A few of Nguyen’s friends started an AAPI Community Fund on GoFundMe to create a hub of resources to help the many different identities within the Asian American community because it’s not a monolith, he said.
“We come from a vast spectrum of experiences coming over to America,” Nguyen said. “The Chinese experience started in the 1800s. The Vietnamese experience, my parents’ experience mostly started in the 1970s. And to think that those experiences are the same — it’s sort of, again, I keep on this word ‘diminish’ — when we’re seen as a monolith, it diminishes us,” he said.
At the same time, there’s also the community’s collective power as Asian Americans, he said.
“I wanted to somehow use my storytelling abilities to help it and find a message that humanize the stories of people who are being attacked, but at the same time learning about our history and how solidarity is important and how we can have a voice as a community,” Nguyen said.
You trace this idea that there’s a collective memory to anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., creating a narrative thread of past horrific incidents. Did you find most people didn’t even know about a lot of these incidents?
Nguyen said a lot of people who watched his short film weren’t aware of these past events in U.S. history. He also said he only recently learned about the Page Act in the past year. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is often cited as the first piece of legislation against immigrant communities, he said, but the Page Act occurred a few years before the Exclusion Act.
“It’s important that we use the tools of story, of culture, to raise awareness of these historical events. These aren’t ways to celebrate events, but I think in our recognition of them, we recognize the country and our collective identity,” he said, “and I think we have to know that it’s ingrained in our history.”
Nguyen said he often notes when someone says something akin to “That’s not America” following news of a hate crime.
“That’s not the aspirational America, but that is America,” he said, adding that the country’s founding history includes the eradication of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Black people.
“I love America — don’t get me wrong — but I think the idea of America, the idea that my parents came to leave a country for and find a new homeland is important, but we’re always trying to form a more perfect union,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do with storytelling: the idea that we can educate ourselves and progress and learn more about our country and how we can not repeat history.”
Your film includes Asian American voices, along with Black voices as well, pointing to the issue of solidarity. Can you talk about how you decided who you would feature, when you talk about addressing this surge of anti-Asian hate?
“I think stopping anti-Asian hate or trying to stop it is something that can’t be achieved by just the Asian American community has to be an act of solidarity,” Nguyen said, adding that to form solidarity, it was important for him to include voices outside the community as well.
The filmmaker was open about the importance of a variety of voices needed to help fight against discrimination, and how there is a history behind it with examples like the celebrity friendship between the late martial artist Bruce Lee and basketball legend, actor and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nguyen described “we can form a more perfect union in America by showing small acts of solidarity.”
For his PSA, Duke — a friend of Nguyen’s — made an appearance. Nguyen said Winston has been a “strong ally in standing in solidarity with the Asian American community.”
“I should say that there are a lot of incidents of anti-Blackness in [the Asian American] community, and we also have to reckon with that as well,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t stand in solidarity with Black lives … and everything can be reciprocated.”