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The “Documenting the Undocumented” episode of Hollywood Remixed, The Hollywood Reporter‘s topical inclusion-themed podcast explores narratives about undocumented immigrants with two special guests.
Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is, for many, the public face and also voice for undocumented immigrants in this country. The former Washington Post reporter learned the truth about his status as a teenager, then went public about it 14 years later. Since telling his own story in that 2011 New York Times Magazine essay, Vargas has now gone on to advocate for other immigrants through shaping the storytelling about them.
“In this country, you cannot change the politics of an issue unless you change the culture in which people see the issue and touch the issue and feel the issue,” Vargas, who co-founded the media advocacy nonprofit Define American, tells Hollywood Remixed host Rebecca Sun (THR senior editor of diversity and inclusion). “So from the very beginning, it was about: How do we use stories to liberate all these stories of people that would make us better understand what the border, what the wall, what immigration really is all about?”
Vargas notes that both the news and entertainment sides of the media tend to focus on the politics (and criminality and racialization) of immigration, while missing the community, humanity as well as process of the issue. That’s one reason why he appreciates Blue Bayou, director and star Justin Chon’s narrative of a Louisiana man who discovers as an adult that his adoptive parents failed to naturalize him, and now faces deportation away from his pregnant wife, stepdaughter and the only home he has ever known.
Chon also joins Hollywood Remixed to discuss the research he conducted with real-life undocumented adoptees and immigration lawyers to ensure that he told his story with authenticity, and how he hopes his film will bolster their efforts to blaze a path to citizenship. “People are working on it. But the lack of attention it’s getting is what’s allowing it to be kind of just put on the side,” he says. “Now if it becomes a big deal and people are like, Wait, why is this happening? Why are adoptees that are brought as children being deported? That makes no sense. Also, there’s a Child Citizenship Act of 2000. Why are kids adopted after 2000 getting granted automatic citizenship and no one before? The more people know about this issue, the more it’s harder for them to not address it. That was my purpose with the film: to bring it to a wider audience than just a news article. It’s harder to ignore.”
Catch up on all the episodes of Hollywood Remixed, including last week’s conversation about non-binary representation with Billions‘ Asia Kate Dillon, and subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice to be alerted when new episodes drop.
Episode 2×5: Justin Chon – “Documenting the Undocumented”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!”
Rebecca Sun: Welcome to Hollywood Remixed, a topical podcast about inclusion and representation in culture and entertainment. I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter. If you’re checking us out for the first time, here at Hollywood Remixed each episode is dedicated to a single theme – a type of character, storyline or identity that has traditionally been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture.
This week we’re discussing undocumented immigrant narratives with two very special guests. The impetus of this episode is Focus Features’ new film Blue Bayou, which comes out Sept. 17 and tells the story of a Louisiana man who discovers that when he was adopted from Korea as an infant, his new family never filed the proper paperwork to get him naturalized. Now married with a baby on the way, he faces deportation to a country that is foreign to him – and more importantly, away from the only home he has ever known.
Justin Chon, the director and star of the film, will join us later in the episode to talk about the various real-life inspirations behind creating this story. But first, I’m very excited to welcome the great Jose Antonio Vargas as our guest expert for this episode. Jose is the first Pulitzer winner ever to join our podcast – but I’m getting ahead of myself. When it comes to someone who can speak both to the experience of living in this country without documentation as well as to the significance of media representation on this issue, he is the one. Jose is a journalist who was part of the Washington Post reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Three years after that, Jose disclosed his status as an undocumented immigrant in an essay for The New York Times Magazine. You can read that essay online, or learn more about his personal story in the CNN documentary Documented or his memoir Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Since then, Jose has become an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, a Tony-nominated producer, as well as the founder of Define American, the media advocacy nonprofit that seeks to change cultural attitudes about immigrants through harnessing the power of storytelling and media, all of which obviously makes him the ideal guest expert today.
Jose, thank you so much for joining us today. It is a real honor for me to have you on the podcast.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Oh, thanks for having me. (Laughs.)
Sun: When we talk about the power of storytelling and particularly when it comes to undocumented narratives, I think you’re pretty much the foremost authority on this subject, both because of your capacity as the founder of Define American – which we’ll talk a lot about – and also because of your own personal story and your experience with sharing that narrative. I was kind of debating which aspect to start with, but I think maybe if you don’t mind, we can start with the personal experience first, for the people who somehow aren’t familiar with your work for the past decade. In 2011 you wrote a New York Times Magazine essay in which you came out about your own undocumented status. People can go read that for themselves, they can go read Dear America – your subsequent book – for themselves. But what I’m curious about is what impacts have you seen, or have you experienced, from the act of sharing your own narrative?
Vargas: Oh! An easy one to start with. (Laughs.) Just a bit of background: I came here from the Philippines at 12. I found that I was undocumented when I was 16. And I say this because it’s true: The saving grace for me was finding journalism because if I hadn’t – if my English teacher hadn’t said that I should be a journalist – then I would not have had a career. I would not have had something else. Something almost like an identity. For me, being a journalist has been kind of like an identity to focus all my energy on. And in many ways, from the age of 17 until I was 30, which is when that essay was published, I spent 13 years of my life writing about other people, which is what journalists do, right? I have to report on other people, so that I don’t have to deal with myself.
So to answer your question more directly, telling my story and dealing with myself, once you write that out, you make it real. I didn’t really understand my own mental health and the psychological toll that all of this has taken. I say that when you’re undocumented, you kind of live three realities: You lie a lot – because this is what you do. You lie to get jobs, you lie to people when they ask you, “Why haven’t you seen your mom or your relatives in the Philippines?” You try to pass – like the first thing I did when I found that I was here illegally was to get rid of my Tagalog accent, which is really thick. And I did that through watching every possible movie and film and listening to every CD and tape I could borrow from the Mountain View Public Library. And then you hide – you hide from the government, even though the government knows you’re here, sort of, because I’ve been paying taxes. It’s been always so interesting to me that ever since I was 18 years old, I was paying to the IRS. So the IRS knows I’m here, but I’m hiding from the Department of Homeland Security. Like, don’t they talk to each other?
So once I wrote my story and owned my story and then realized that I was surrounded by all these other people, all the other community of storytellers who were telling their stories so that they can see themselves and have other people see them, for me that was the biggest impact: How do we tell our stories so we can face ourselves and then build community with each other?
Sun: That community, that was one of the things that kind of struck me when I was reading your story. Because there is a very specific media portrayal of what an undocumented immigrant looks like, what their circumstances are. We’re obviously going to talk about that. But I think what struck me was that you had teachers and you had editors who knew you as a person, who knew you as a student, who knew you as a hardworking, very enterprising journalist and therefore were invested in your life, and did invest in your life.
Vargas: That’s the kind of reality that I think the media – and when I say the media, not just what you read in the news and watch in the news and listen in the news, but also the television shows and movies we consume – that’s the part of the reality of community that I think we as storytellers haven’t really told. There’s a lot to do there. This is me putting my storytelling hat on: So I moved to this country in ’93. It just so happens that the ’90s was the decade in which this country saw more immigrants – undocumented and documented – move to this country, mostly from Latin America and mostly from Asia, many from the Caribbean and from Africa. Like, the Black immigrant population, for example, one out of 10 Black persons in this country is a Black immigrant. The Black immigrant population has increased five times since 1980. And yet when we think about immigrants, we have this vision of the border, the wall, Mexico, to the point that I actually think we owe Mexicans an apology for having racialized this issue as much as we have.
And so from the very beginning for me, the goal was: How do we tell more integrated, more community-based stories of immigrants in this country and how we make it in this country? Because we can’t exist without community. That’s where I find fertile ground for narrative.
Sun: We’ll mention here that what you’re speaking of is not only from personal experience and it’s also not just anecdotal. Your organization, Define American, has done studies that actually give you statistics about how immigrants are portrayed, the demographics of these immigrant characters. And so I’ll share a few now, and we’ll go through these because I think they’re very relevant to this discussion.
First of all, my hope is that on this show, we’ll be able to have a lot of different episodes dedicated to different facets of the immigrant experience. Today we’re specifically talking about stories about the undocumented experience. It’s interesting, in a study that Define American published in partnership with the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, you guys found that nearly two thirds of immigrant characters on television were either undocumented or seeking asylum, but in real life, less than a quarter – it’s 24 percent – of American immigrants are undocumented. So the first question is, why is there such an overrepresentation of undocumentation on television?
Vargas: I have to say, this is the Obama administration and the Trump administration. I was a political reporter for The Washington Post when Obama ran for president. And I’m still kind of wrapping my head around the reality, the undisputable fact that the Obama administration deported more immigrants than any other administration in modern history. So that happened. And then Trump happened, which of course is when we saw undocumented people [as] the people he called “illegals” and the “undesirables” and all of that. So I think because of what was happening, and the fact that we were waking up to this horrible reality that undocumented people live through, we’ve seen an overrepresentation of undocumented stories.
And for me, what’s tricky here is that too often there are exceptions. We paint undocumented people as if they are islands unto themselves, as if they don’t exist in this larger community of people. When in reality, undocumented people live with people who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Like just one perfect example: I’m Filipino, and I have 30 relatives here, just here in the Bay Area where I live, and I’m the only undocumented person out of those 30 people. That’s just a fact. So in many ways we were kind of overcompensating and overrepresenting the undocumented experience without looking at the community of people around them. So I think that’s what we saw happen.
And now what does the correction look like? It means that we focus on family, extended family. It means we try to understand here in America – I mean, this is why the state of California, if you put the Latino population and Asian population together, we make up the majority of the state. That happened because of immigration in the past few decades. So you can’t really separate immigration and race, and you can’t separate immigration from family. Those are married. Those are linked.
Sun: Right. I think we’re starting to sometimes see more and more of these narratives – unfortunately, I don’t think they’re given a lot of oxygen – but the toll and the cost of those connections. I think that deportation has traditionally been portrayed as just like cutting out something that’s isolated –
Vargas: Yeah, you’re extricating. It’s almost like you’re just taking out one tooth and then you’re done.
Sun: No ramifications whatsoever stateside. Precisely. You know, later in this show we’ll talk to Justin Chon, who directed Blue Bayou, and that is about a man who’s enmeshed in his life –
Vargas: And in his community.
Sun: Precisely. He has a wife, he has a child on the way, and these are the realities.
Vargas: And he has friends around him. That’s what I really actually gravitated to a lot on that film. And I think what we are now seeing, and what we’re hoping at Define American we can do. Just to kind of explain a little bit more, when I came out a decade ago – I can’t believe it’s been a decade ago –
Sun: It’s almost exactly to the day that the New York Times Magazine essay came out. I think it was like September of 2011. [Editor’s note: It was June 2011.]
Vargas: – I asked three of my friends, all of whom were all media people: Jehmu Greene, who was at the time heading, Rock the Vote and the Women’s Media Center; Alicia Menendez, who now has her show on MSNBC; and Jake Brewer, my friend who unfortunately passed away. I recruited them to start this organization with me. From the very beginning: How do we put stories at the center? The reality is in this country – and all you gotta do is look at same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, I mean, look at trans representation, which is astounding to me. Look at the civil rights movement. In this country, you cannot change the politics of an issue unless you change the culture in which people see the issue and touch the issue and feel the issue. So from the very beginning, it was about: How do we use stories to liberate all these stories of people that would make us better understand what the border, what the wall, what immigration really is all about?
So here we are 10 years later, and I have to say that the biggest success of the organization is the way we’ve been working. I can’t believe it, it’s been 10 years now, but just in the past few years, getting into writers’ rooms, we have worked with over a hundred projects now across 23 networks, studios, streaming platforms, helping writers, producers and directors. How do we better, more humanely and with more complexity tell immigrant stories? So that’s what we’ve been doing.
Sun: And I think that the challenge that faced – I don’t know if I should say “faced” or “continues to face” – your organization is, it’s not even so much that immigrant narratives were being ignored completely, like in the larger news media. In other words, it’s not like the average American who just watches news on TV or whatever has no conception whatsoever of what an immigrant is like, unlike some communities that I cover, like for example Native American representation, where there’s just like a void. This is one in which you have to sort of work against a counter-narrative that’s being pushed and certain tropes that had to be undone.
For example – and I’ll throw out another statistic from Define American and Norman Lear’s research – the overrepresentation of criminality. So just stating a fact here, statistically, immigrants – and this includes undocumented immigrants – commit less crime than us native-born Americans.
Vargas: That’s a fact!
Sun: That’s a fact, it’s a statistical fact. However, there’s an overrepresentation of criminality, which we obviously saw with Trump, I mean, he launched his campaign off of that, but we kind of also see that even in narrative television too. So here’s maybe a devil’s advocate question of sorts: How much do you think that has to do with just the dramatically compelling nature of crime in general? Like, “Oh, it’s not personal to immigrants. We just love writing stories about crime because we’re a procedural” or whatever.
Vargas: That’s a great question because it’s about nuance. And this is why stories are important, because it’s probably one of the few places in the public square that we have to deal with complexity and nuance. So if you have an undocumented character – and we see this character a lot on Fox News, in which they’re rapists or they’re robbers, they stole something. So that’s actually a crime, but how do you not conflate that with people’s immigration status? To be in this country illegally is not a criminal offense. And yet those two things have been so conflated. Even the term “illegal”: How do you legalize people you call “illegal”? You don’t. In some ways the language really tells us how stuck we are. Like, we’re not even describing, oh, did they overstay their visa? Oh, were they adopted when they were kids and then their parents did not fill paperwork and it fell on a certain timeline, so that’s how they got to be undocumented? Like, almost 50 percent of the people in this country who are here without authorization flew in a plane to get here. They didn’t cross the Mexican border.
Sun: They didn’t scale a wall or anything like that.
Vargas: This is where description, characters, all of that come into play. And the journalist in me – and this is why research for us at Define American, we’re one of the only organizations with really a research department, there’s woman named Sarah Lowe, our research director, that oversees the research – because as a journalist, as you know, Rebecca, one of the first things we have to learn is not assume anything. How do we know that we know what we know? So research is really important for us at Define American. And it’s been astounding, looking at the research and then looking at the reality of, you have journalists that don’t really quite understand the facts of the issue that they’re supposed to be reporting on. And then you have storytellers – narrative film, TV – whose job it is to tell the truth. So the balance of the truth and facts, there are many things that can not be factual but may ring true. So that is the complex part of our work. And that’s why at Define America we have an entertainment media consulting team and we actually have also a journalism news media strategy, because we have to do both. We can’t do one without the other.
Sun: I was thinking about that, and I’m so glad that you teased out that dynamic, especially when it comes to storylines revolving around this type of subject matter. There is such a relationship between the entertainment media community and the news media community. And sometimes it’s almost like a pipeline. There’s a whole genre of television that’s “ripped from the headlines” television. And so if these creators are getting their inspiration for their storylines from the news media, let’s back it up and let me ask you about that news media component. In Define American’s experience, what kinds of immigrant stories are journalism outlets generally interested in covering, and has it changed a little bit?
Vargas: We’re actually just getting the journalism partnership strategy off the ground. And what we’re trying to figure out is: Where can we be most useful? But to answer your question most directly, what I’m seeing a lot as a journalist is that because of the way the issue is framed, which is from a political perspective – what’s happening in D.C., the fight in Congress. I mean, look, I’m 40 years old. I don’t know how long, how many more years it’s going to take for me to wait for this immigration reform that I’ve been waiting for since I was 19. Because Congress, it’s not moving. So because the news media focuses so much on the politics of the issue, we haven’t focused as much on the processes of the issue. The number one question, Rebecca, I get asked every day – actually, as I’m sitting here, I just got an email from somebody saying, “Why don’t you just get legal?”
That is the number one question I get. I just spoke with an editor last night – I’m not going to divulge who it was because I respect the news organization – who was like, “Wait, you’re still here illegally? I’m sure you could have fixed this by now.” And I’m like, how? Immaculate conception? Is there a miraculous immigration reform thing that I don’t know about? Or do people think that just because, you know, I am –
Sun: It comes with the Pulitzer?
Vargas: She was like, “Well, you’re such a public person, I thought that you would have fixed this by now.” As if, again, fixing it, like, do I just have to call a plumber? How does this work? So the process of immigration. And storytelling for me is about process. And we saw some of that, by the way, on Blue Bayou. We saw kind of the process of: Wait, how did this happen? What does it mean to undo something? So that’s why I really appreciate that film, because that’s what we need to do. And one film was not enough. We need more films. We need more episodes. I mean, if I can talk to the Law and Order people and be like, “Yo, can we just do an entire season of this, where we actually just explain, in an entertaining but also informative way, the process of immigration in this country?”
Sun: Right. Because, yes, crime is dramatically compelling, but honestly, that process of immigration contains all of the hope, the disappointment, the heartbreak, the trauma. I mean, if you’re looking for a dramatically volatile situation… For people who haven’t seen Blue Bayou yet, I believe this is one of the scenes that they’ve put up on YouTube. They’re in the lawyer’s office and the lawyer outlines his options: You can stand trial and hope that you win, or you can go back – “back,” because he hasn’t been to Korea since he was an infant – for like 10 years and then come back. You know, miss the birth and first 10 years of your daughter’s life.
Vargas: And by the way, that’s not guaranteed that you can come back. That was the same option given to me: You can try to come back, but there’s no guarantee.
Sun: If you stay and try to make your case but you lose the trial, then you get a permanent ban.
Vargas: For me, though, this is why it’s important to differentiate – and thank you, because you’re absolutely right, Rebecca – that there is a correlation between the news media we consume and the television shows and movies that we’re consuming. What is their relationship with each other? And then, as you said, what is the counter narrative strategy? That is what we formed at Define American.
If you’re listening to this and you’re a producer, writer or director, we have a media reference guide where we actually lay out: here are all the tropes to avoid, here are all the terms you should know. As a writer and a filmmaker myself, I’m sensitive to the tasks of being creative and the creative process. Writers don’t want to be told how to write. They want to feel free to write, but writers, I would also argue, have a responsibility. The moment you start writing, you belong in a space bigger than yourself. So what is your responsibility? And what is your task to tell something as humanely and as accurately as you can? I can’t think of any one that I know, a TV writer or a director or producer, who wants to deliberately mislead people. They don’t want to do that. So we have this media reference guide. And if you are working on a show and you want to work with people who know about this issue, please contact us. This is what we’ve made our bread and butter.
Sun: I’m glad you mentioned that. All of this information is available on defineamerican.com. It’s a resource that’s available for storytellers. If somebody isn’t familiar – well, now you don’t have an excuse. You’ve listened to this episode and we’re going to hold you accountable. (Laughs.)
Another thing from your study that I thought was interesting, and this is kind of illustrative of how writers treat characters – I’ve never seen this in any other type of diversity or demographic study – you differentiate between what you called “storyline episodes” and “character episodes” in terms of analyzing how immigrant characters are treated. It seemed to me – and you tell me if this is not quite the right definition – it seemed like storyline episodes are more like: The immigrant character’s there to serve the plot, a.k.a., the emphasis is on the storyline, versus in character episodes, they tend to be series regulars. They tend to be, I guess, more multi-dimensional characters, for lack of a better term.
Vargas: For example, at Define American, we’ve worked with A Million Little Things, that show on ABC. There’s a character named Tyrell with this undocumented storyline, and we actually saw it play out throughout the season. Meaning, it’s this character that you’re introduced to, and you’re introduced to this character and in a three-dimensional way, which is hopefully how writers write the character. And then you get to see what they’re facing. For that specific character, his mother, Martine, was deported back to Haiti. And for us, that was another show that we were excited to work on because it was about introducing this undocumented Black storyline. On a show called Superstore at NBC that really kicked off her consulting practice, we saw the character of Mateo for four seasons as this three-dimensional character, who happens to be undocumented. I was new to this term, “parasocial”: Viewers ended up having this kind of relationship with him as if he’s really their friend. “Oh, my friend just got picked up by ICE,” which is actually what happened [on the show].
What’s interesting about that is we live in a country where people may think that we’re integrated, because we all watched the VMAs, or we all saw the Super Bowl, but before the pandemic, I was traveling nonstop. I’ve been to many places in this country where the only way they would know an immigrant is the news that they consume and the television shows they watch. The only knowledge they have of immigrants is literally through the media. And that’s why we prefer to work on characters that we see them grow. Of course, we’ve worked with TV episodes where they just want to insert that one undocumented character for one episode –
Sun: Crime of the week! (Laughs.)
Vargas: Crime of the week. We want to be helpful as much as possible, but we found in our research that actually having recurring characters that people can develop relationships with is actually much better in terms of humanizing this issue.
Sun: I think biases are revealed in what kinds of characters get to be those like season-long characters versus the one-offs. The storyline characters tend to be undocumented. Sixty-two percent of them were undocumented, and almost the exact same percentage were Latino, which again shows you how racialized that status has become. Whereas white immigrants are usually found in character episodes, as well as Asian immigrants, which I’m going to assume is East Asians like Fresh Off the Boat.
Sun: you know? Right. And so it’s a very specific type that you usually get.
Vargas: Part of the diversification of Hollywood is “representation matters,” right? And making sure that it’s not only in front of the camera, but behind the cameras. As we continually see how writers’ rooms are being diversified, how do we know that there isn’t a single Asian story? That when you’re telling an Asian story, there’s a Filipino story, a Korean story, a Vietnamese story and a Chinese story? And the same thing with Latinx people. The Cuban experience. I, as a Filipino, have more in common with Puerto Ricans than I do with Chinese people, because the history of colonialism in Puerto Rico and the Philippines is actually pretty parallel. Than it is with me and the Philippines and the relationship in Korea or China. So this is where I think the complexities of histories and people’s experiences [are] a great opportunity for storytellers. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity.
Sun: It totally is. I don’t know what is not inherently intriguing about learning a nuance that you just didn’t realize before, rather than resorting to the same tropes. You spoke about that parasocial relationship that audience members can develop with characters, particularly I think in television, because you see them on a long-term basis. And again, this is not just anecdotal. You guys studied it. Define American did a study where you not just did the stats and the data of onscreen characters, but you actually surveyed how viewing immigrant narratives in television shows actually have impacted people’s opinions about immigration, about policy. Before we go into our closing questions, what are some of those topline results that you found?
Vargas: What was interesting was how did it change their attitude, but then how did it impact their behavior? For example, being exposed to a character like Mateo actually compelled people to either attend a rally or to contact their congressional member. And for me, what’s really most important is once you are introduced to our character, do you tell your friends about it? Do you tell your relatives about it?
Because I actually think in the time that we’re living in right now in many ways, the most important activist thing you can do is to be an activist within your own network of people. Do not make any assumptions that your friends and your coworkers and relatives think and believe what you think and believe, because where do they get that information? I mean, the amount of counterprogramming, Rebecca, that I have to do with my Filipino relatives is immense. I used to just call out people on Twitter, and then I realized that I’m calling out strangers that I don’t know, and I’m not even calling out my uncles and my aunts. So I’ve spent the past couple of years kind of focusing on “calling in,” not calling out all my relatives who, because they watch Fox News, because they’d been Republican, because many of them are military people. I have to constantly counterprogram. So what we’re finding is once you’re introduced to a character, it actually impacts not only your behavior, but your action.
And thank you, Rebecca, for pointing out the research part of this. You know, the Norman Lear Center is as good as it gets when it comes to research, so we wanted to make sure that it’s not – as a journalist myself, I remember when I would get some of these research studies that are like, Wait, how did you know, how did you do that? What’s the methodology here? Oh, you talked to five people, right? That’s what we call anecdotal, which is great. Thank you for doing that. But to me, rigor and research is really important, and we’ve invested money in it, and it’s not cheap. Research is not cheap.
Sun: The study is available for free online for anybody to read the report in full. But I’m glad that you mentioned not just the attitudes, but it does impact actions, people’s willingness to go out and actually sign a petition or share with somebody about what they learned.
As we wrap up, we always ask every guest two questions, and I’ll give them both to you at the same time, because some people only like to answer one of them, which is perfectly fine. It’s basically: As we reflect on what Hollywood has given us so far – and I’ll broaden it beyond Hollywood and you can just talk about media in general – is there an example of a narrative, a treatment that you would request a do-over for? Like, “ah, that was a little problematic.” And then conversely, is there a hidden gem, something that somebody who is checking out this episode and is like, “Huh, I’d really like to see, experience or be exposed to a narrative specifically about the undocumented experience,” that you would recommend that would really teach something in a good way?
Vargas: I can only answer one of those questions, because if I were to answer the first one, we would be here forever. (Laughs.) I want to focus on the positive. I’m thinking about the Hidden Gem. I know that you’re going to be talking to Justin too, and I have to say for me, clearly [Blue Bayou] not a TV show, but I just watched it a couple of weeks ago. And I’m still thinking about it, how specific that character is. To see an Asian American man, who’s trying to figure out what being Asian means, and then to have this Southern accent, because he lives in New Orleans, and to have this relationship with his wife who happens to be white, and with a stepdaughter who happens to be white, it was all those specific things that I’m so hungry for representation that I felt kind of elevated just by seeing it. And then the lawyer in that scene you just described a few minutes ago, that lawyer’s African American.
Sun: The great Vondie Curtis-Hall.
Vargas: And this film comes from MACRO, which is increasingly becoming one of my favorite [production companies] in terms of their investment in storytelling from people who are underrepresented. So I found so many gems in Blue Bayou, and knowing that Justin not only wrote it and directed it but stars in it, I hope that seeing that film would inspire other storytellers to add to this ecosystem of stories that we need to tell. And he did the most amazing thing that I actually got chills as I was watching: The end of that movie, clearly he was inspired by all the real stories. So it’s the melding of the adoptees that you’ve seen in the news. He did this carousel of pictures of real people, real adoptees who have either gotten deported or are going through deputation proceedings right now. I just thought it was a tremendous gesture from an artist. So that to me is a gem, a real gem.
Sun: That closing-credits quota is very powerful.
Since I think you’re too humble to do it, I will say as my hidden gem, because there’s nothing more powerful than a real-life story, for those who haven’t checked it out, it’s still available on the New York Times website, Jose’s 2011 essay in which you go public with your own status. And if you want more, you have a whole book, Dear America, on it. So I’ll recommend that as my hidden gem resource, as well as Define American. If you’re a storyteller and just looking for a resource, you want to try to get this right, there’s a whole group of experts who are available to help. They’ve been consulting on film and television projects for a decade.
So Jose, thank you so much. This conversation was so useful and really, really helpful. And I, and I hope it helps a lot of other people as well.
Vargas: Thank you so much for having me.
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Sun: Justin Chon is an actor and filmmaker who starred in the Twilight franchise, the studio comedy 21 & Over and Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching, to name just a few of his credits. As a director, his past two features hewed more closely to his own background growing up in southern California: 2019’s Ms. Purple is about two estranged siblings in Koreatown trying to come together to take care of their terminally ill father, while 2017’s Gook adds the Korean American perspective to a story about the 1992 L.A. riots. Gook won the Audience Award in the Next section at the Sundance Film Festival and also earned Justin the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. His latest film, Blue Bayou, explores aspects of the Asian American experience that are true to life but seldom seen onscreen: those who grow up in the Deep South, those who are transracial adoptees – and those who discover in adulthood that they are undocumented.
Justin, thanks so much for joining us. I saw Blue Bayou actually a couple of months ago, and I thought it was exquisite. So this is really exciting for me today. I wanted to start by asking you the genesis of the story. You wrote the film, you directed it. What was the seed that really sparked your interest in exploring this narrative?
Justin Chon: What’s become my purpose with my storytelling has been to bring empathy to Asian Americans, to my community. With that, there’s all sorts of experiences in this country. It’s so diverse. The adoptee experience is something that I don’t think has been very much exposed. I didn’t start out by thinking about any of it. I started hearing from the community and started to see articles about adoptees who were being deported. And I just thought it was absolutely just insane that a child could be brought here as an infant by U.S. citizens, and money is exchanged, and 30 years later through some loophole and paperwork, they could decide that you weren’t an American citizen. It’s different from crossing a border or coming here illegally. It’s different in the sense that a child was brought here by U.S. citizens. They really had no choice in the matter. How are they supposed to know, if they’re brought here at two or three, that the paperwork wasn’t properly filed? It just blew my mind. I felt that it must be an issue that can be easily resolved because it seems so straightforward. What I found out was that it’s an incredibly difficult process, once you’re on that radar, to get the government to acknowledge you’re a U.S. citizen once you’re in that part. And then once you do get deported, it’s almost impossible to find a path way back to the country, because they see you as an illegal. Hearing about this issue, my heart bled for the people going through it. I started asking around, and nobody really knew this was going on. I started this journey about five years ago, and I just felt like this issue needed to be brought to light and that hopefully the right people would see it.
Sun: What kinds of research did you do? You mentioned this was a five-year process to craft this story. There’s many real-life cases of adoptees who faced or did experience deportation; any opportunity to speak with maybe some of the lawyers, like the one that Vondie Curtis-Hall plays in the film, to get some firsthand experiences of people who have lived this?
Chon: I did speak with lawyers to get the legality of everything and how this is even possible, the steps and once you get a deportation order, how difficult it is to reverse it. I had about five or six adoptee consultants to make sure I got that aspect right, hopefully trying to get as close to what that feels like. I’ll never know; I’m not adopted. So I just made sure that at least I could do everything I could to try to understand that and to accurately, authentically portray that experience. But even the adoptee experience is so diverse. That one story is not going to represent everybody, but also I didn’t want to portray Antonio as a saint. I really wanted to be human and be flawed like all of us are, so as to not make it like a propaganda piece and more like: This is a man’s story. Because my main thing with this film is I wanted to make sure that it raises discussion and conversations. I’m not necessarily telling you what’s right and wrong. We did get in contact with Adoptees for Advocacy. Kristopher Larsen read the script, and he is actually awaiting deportation. He got his orders that he’s being deported, and he went through the whole process. And then after I made the movie, I spoke to Anissa Druesedow, who’s at the end of the film, heard her experience. She was deported back to Panama and Kristopher helped us find some of those cases at the end of the film. And the experiences range in terms of how it came to be and why, what triggered the deportation process. But yeah, I tried to do as much as I could.
Sun: Your choice to close the film with the end credits with all of these examples of real-life people who are facing this kind of pulls the narrative into this brutal reality. And I’ve read over the years too different accounts. I think there was that guy, Adam Crapser, I remember reading his story and he was deported to Korea, and I read another account where it was awful. I think a man, after he was deported, took his life.
Chon: Phillip Clay. And then there was one recent one, two different firefighters, like one was a Vietnamese refugee, another one I think was an adoptee. But the experience really ranges. Some people apply for government jobs, like for the D.O.D., and they do an in-depth search into their past and that’s how they find out. People get picked up for drunk driving or go to apply for a passport. I would say that adoption in general is often looked through rose-colored glasses and you rarely hear about the cases where a child is adopted from another country and the parents don’t want them, so they go through the foster care system. That’s what this particular story is. Monte Haines and Phillip Clay and Adam, they all experienced that side of international adoption, so there’s quite a few. At the time I was trying to film it, I couldn’t get exact numbers, but Kristopher was saying it could be a lot more, like tens of thousands. It’s hard to track because once it gets into the immigration system, I don’t think they catalog who was an adoptee.
Sun: You mentioned earlier that Antonio, you intentionally wrote him as not a saint. I think sometimes when somebody tries to generate empathy for an injustice, there’s this desire to find the perfect victim, the flawless character. Can you talk to me a little bit more about your decision to make your protagonist, somebody with a criminal record, somebody who has made choices that his wife disagreed with – although I think they are very much grounded in sort of a justification – but just in crafting that, how you believe that a real and a human character is I guess inherently empathetic?
Chon: One of the questions I ask in the film – apart from who deserves to be an American, who gets to decide that – is: Are we allowed to have an opportunity for redemption, for second chances? With the adoptees, I’m not trying to say anything negative. This particular story, I’m just showing that the criminal aspect can also be an excuse to kick somebody out. It shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter if he’s committed crimes or not, because he was adopted by U.S. citizens.
At the time we meet Antonio in the film, he’s trying everything he can to just survive and make it right. He’s just really trying to do everything right. He’s married and he loves his wife and he has a stepkid that he loves and is trying to do right by her and cares about how she feels. He’s working his ass off trying to find jobs. In that sense, a lot of Americans every day go through that. At the same time, he’s made some mistakes, but haven’t we all? Haven’t we all made mistakes? Not everybody lives perfect lives where they haven’t sinned. So I think it makes it much more accessible and realistic to just a human being. Also I didn’t want to make the film tell you what to think. I don’t want the film to tell you how to feel about this issue. All I’m simply doing is saying, “Okay, here’s an Asian American man that grew up in the South, that didn’t have the greatest childhood. He’s trying to do right and turn his life around. And this is just his story.” And it just so happens that he was adopted. And the action of it all is that he finds out he’s not an American citizen.
Sun: And particularly I think the tragedy of the way in which he found this out is because he was essentially accosted by a racist cop. This isn’t that much of a spoiler because it happens in act one of the film. But he gets in a fight with a cop, which I guess you could say he shouldn’t have punched him back, but he was a bad cop. Let’s be real.
Why did you choose Louisiana as the setting? The Deep South where Antonio was, for most of his life, probably the only Asian he knew.
Chon: In line with representing my community and the myriad of stories that exist, Asians don’t exist just on the coast. We’re all over this country, whether it’s North Dakota, Wisconsin, also the South. With that, I’m trying to normalize who we are in this country. And I knew for a fact, if I put an Asian American man on screen with a Southern accent, immediately people would have an adverse reaction to that. It’s something I really had to deal with a lot, because everybody was like, “Don’t do it.” They’re like, “Why can’t you just talk normally?” And I said, No, no, no, no, no. I have personal friends who talk like this, who are from New Orleans, who are Asian, and it immediately makes us look at this country and think, You know what? It’s so diverse, and just as valid. I felt like that aspect of it really questions the idea of what does an American mean, who should be allowed to stay in this country.
The other reason is I wanted two Asian American cultures in one film. After the Vietnam War, a lot of Vietnamese refugees were relocated to the South, you know: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and San Jose. So there’s a huge Vietnamese community in New Orleans, New Orleans East, and the Westbank. And I think New Orleans also is a resilient town. They’ve dealt with so many natural disasters, but they continue on. And I think that’s what Antonio is. He embodies that. He embodies that city, and symbolically it just made sense for me. New Orleans also doesn’t feel like anywhere else in the U.S. It almost feels like a foreign country. It feels like it’s its own place.
Sun: The film has such a distinct sense of place. The way in which you filmed it, as well as your frequent collaborators, like your cinematographer Ante Cheng, it just feels very steeped in the atmosphere of that region. I’m glad you included and just mentioned the Vietnamese American community there. We’ve seen it spotlighted in a few other projects set in that same place – I’ll shout out Queen Sugar, which I think has done a good job of acknowledging the fact that Vietnamese exist in that area. Talk a little bit more about that juxtaposition between those two Asian American identities, Antonio’s experience being diametrically opposite from Parker’s whole lifestyle and culture. Particularly given that we often think of refugee narratives, immigrants who have come to this country by way of refugee status, as a form of deprivation. We’re like, “These poor people,” that’s often the mainstream decision to portray people who have come to the country as refugees.
Chon: That’s dummy. That’s some dummy stuff, because that’s not how they feel. In American cinema, even television these days, usually you only have room for one. It’s either just a Korean story or Japanese story. And why? This experience is so diverse that why can’t we have stories about multiple Asian ethnicities in one film? One of my goals in this project was to showcase that there are things that are similar, things that are different, and let’s have conversations about it. For this project in particular, that storyline, Parker exists to be sort of a mother figure to Antonio, but also she’s dying. So how do you, when you compare your problems with someone whose life is about to end, you kind of have to take a step back and look at your situation with some honesty. So that’s what she serves.
But then on top of that, her being Vietnamese and having come to this country, he gets a glimpse of maybe what his returning to where he came from could be like without it being one-to-one. Like, this isn’t a direct comparison, but this is what it could maybe be like. Going to that party in the middle of the film and being like, “This feels familiar, but I’ve never experienced anything like this” and feeling weird about that. And the sense of: Where do I belong? Is this sort of situation more right? You have the blood memory of it, but you’ve never had the experience of it. It’s questioning all those things. All of these things are supposed to make Antonio and also the audience have these feelings that aren’t necessarily put into words. My goal isn’t to try to verbalize these feelings, it’s just to get you to feel them, so that’s the purpose of that whole storyline.
And, speaking with some honesty, I filmed it in New Orleans East, the person who plays [Parker actress] Linh Dan Pham’s dad is the owner of that house. A lot of my Vietnamese friends from New Orleans are in that scene. I made sure that every single person in that scene was Vietnamese from New Orleans. It’s authentic as it can get, you know? Sometimes that’s what I think is maybe lacking at times. It’s like, “Okay, someone has really great intentions,” but it doesn’t feel super authentic.
Sun: It feels very apparent that even though Blue Bayou is a departure from both Gook and Ms. Purple, which were set in Southern California where you grew up and are more centrally about Korean Americans who kind of grew up the way that you did – I’m not trying to say that it was identical – but it’s clear that Blue Bayou comes from real personal experiences that you have absorbed and that you know of. So it resonates.
We always end our podcast interview with two questions for our guests. The first one is called Hollywood Remixed: When you’re looking over immigrant narratives that Hollywood has put forth in the past, is there a specific one that you would revise, or even just a trope that you would like to put an end to or make some changes to?
Chon: Me personally, the answer to the question is no, because why go back to that shit? If there’s an issue with it, I don’t have really have that much of a desire to make someone else’s wrong right. We have so many damn stories to tell, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We have so many rich, beautiful stories that range from Malaysian to Indonesian to Southeast, to Filipino and Japanese, Korean. There’s so many stories to tell; why would we fixate on something that came before that wasn’t even authored by us? That’s why I’ve been working so hard and really trying to tell so many stories. People [say], “Hey, just don’t burn your cachet. You just did this film and it did well. Why don’t you use that to go do a bigger studio film?” Well, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell these stories in the studio system, and there really are so many stories to tell and not enough time. So I’m really well servicing the community by doing what I’m doing. And I don’t want to focus on some weird racist representation of us from the ’80s or something or even earlier than that. We can get more value from telling the original, and just moving forward.
Sun: It does feel like there is more of a path to doing that now. Blue Bayou was your first partnership with MACRO, and literally six years ago, a company like MACRO didn’t exist, that type of alternative model for production and financing that is POC-centered. You didn’t have that. You pretty much had to just GoFundMe your own films like you did with your first one.
The second question is Hidden Gem. And I totally respect what you’re saying is, let’s not dwell on the mistakes of the past. However, is there a positive example, a hidden gem, an undocumented immigrant narrative, or if not a narrative, a current present-day resource that you can recommend to our listeners who have seen Blue Bayou who really want to get involved more, if not actively participating, at least understanding this experience a little bit better?
Chon: I’m not opposed to someone else doing it. It’s just me personally, I don’t really find that fulfilling for myself. By all means, if someone else who wants to do it, please. Also the other thing is I’m not terribly political. I’m just seeing this injustice here and my heart bleeds for these people going through this, but I don’t claim to be a super politically knowledgeable person. I’m just doing what I feel is right in trying to expose something that I feel is wrong. So I think what people can do for this particular issue is maybe research what’s going on and see if you can help. There’s particular congressmen that need to be contacted to swing some of these votes to make sure that some of these incremental legislation initiatives can pass. Doing that kind of research.
Also talking about the film. My big thing is, like I said, not that knowledgeable, but a big thing is the more spotlight an issue gets, the more it’s harder to ignore. And for something like this, people are working on it. But the lack of attention it’s getting is what’s allowing it to be kind of just put on the side. Now if it becomes a big deal and people are like, Wait, why is this happening? Why are adoptees that are brought as children being deported? That makes no sense. Also, there’s a Child Citizenship Act of 2000. Why are kids adopted after 2000 getting granted automatic citizenship and no one before? The more people know about this issue, the more it’s harder for them to not address it. So I think that was my purpose with the film: to bring it to a wider audience than just a news article. It’s harder to ignore.
Sun: Absolutely. I think that that is the apex of what this business, film and television and narratives and storytelling, can do. It can make it a little bit more real, a little bit more visceral for people than a news story. And I think Blue Bayou does a good job of that. Blue Bayou will be released Sept. 17. Justin Chon, thank you so much for your time.
Chon: Thank you.
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Sun: Thanks again to Jose Antonio Vargas and Justin Chon for joining us today for this important conversation. You can learn more about Jose’s personal story through his memoir Dear America and find resources on how to responsibly and accurately tell stories about immigrants and immigration at DefineAmerican.com. Justin’s new film, Blue Bayou, is out in theaters Sept. 17. Stay tuned next week when Dear White People star Logan Browning joins us to talk about Black college life as seen on TV and in the movies, and please subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice so that you don’t miss it.
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