'Seadrift': Film Review

Courtesy Title 8 Productions, LLC
A modest but hopeful doc focused on coexistence.

Tim Tsai's doc looks at the Texas anti-immigrant conflict that inspired Louis Malle's 1985 film 'Alamo Bay.'

How often do you get to watch a man admit that he once felt race-based hatred for others, but that with time he got over it? That's one attraction in Seadrift, Tim Tsai's look at a period when fishing communities on the Texas Gulf Coast struggled to adapt to an influx of Vietnamese immigrants. In August 1979, tension led to a killing that would inspire Louis Malle's Ed Harris vehicle Alamo Bay: A Vietnamese man shot a white local after a long dispute, and when a court ruled it self-defense, bluster from the KKK threatened to bring chaos to a 1,200-person town. Visiting that community today, Tsai focuses on those close to the action, whose passions have long since cooled; while Tsai's storytelling could certainly be stronger, the mostly harmonious picture he paints will be welcome to viewers who want to believe racism, both personal and systemic, can be overcome.

Seadrift was a community too small for a traffic light or a fast-food franchise. It was one of the many bayside towns on the Gulf Coast where decent livings could be made catching shrimp, crabs and the like. People did well enough on their boats that at least one entrepreneur with a crab-processing plant found he couldn't hire enough workers.

So he went out of town, actively recruiting Vietnamese families who'd just fled the war; by the time of the killing, these newcomers represented around 10 percent of the town's population. As in nearby Palacios, a larger town where I lived as a child (we had a stop light and a fried chicken joint called Moo-Moo), the immigrants largely clustered together, living in mobile homes that some outsiders viewed derisively. One Seadrift residents recalls their "ratty ol' trailers"; another admits, "We didn't intermix real good — ain't no way gettin' round that."

While most of the crab factory jobs went to women, their husbands saved up to buy boats and the "pots" in which crabs are caught. Since these pots are crucial to the story's conflict, Tsai would've been smart to spend a minute explaining how they're set in the water and retrieved. We'll soon be hearing complaints from aggrieved crabbers, and most viewers will have trouble evaluating them.

What's very clear is that, whatever personal prejudices they might've had individually, the white men who worked these waters also had reasonable fears about their livelihoods. Their Vietnamese counterparts ignored local customs that, most likely, had never been explained to them; they worked the water aggressively, in spots locals thought belonged to them. They brought in such large hauls that the market price for seafood dropped dramatically. Resentment was fierce. Immigrant Bang "Cherry" Nguyen recalls that, when he was able to get a loan and buy 200 crab traps, a saboteur ruined them all.

Treading rather gently, Tsai gets one white Seadrifter to admit that Billy Joe Aplin, the murder victim, had "a mean streak" and repeatedly bullied the newcomers. That doesn't change the terror (recalled here in an interview) that his daughter felt when she was a little girl out on his boat in June, when a conflict she couldn't possibly have understood led a handful of Vietnamese-piloted boats to crowd around her father's menacingly.

Weeks later, Aplin confronted his antagonist, Sau Van Nguyen, on dry ground. Nguyen pulled a gun and killed him, then escaped from the scene with his friend Cherry. Before the night was over, white residents had destroyed several immigrants' boats and tried to burn their homes.

Months later, an all-white jury in another town shocked white Seadrift by ruling that the killing was self-defense. At which point the KKK announced plans to "investigate": They sent robed members to the area, and made a show of training people in methods of violent retaliation.

Tsai's take on what happened next is epitomized by footage of a town hall meeting about the crisis. After Seadrift officials have spent some time recounting all that has gone wrong, an older white woman rises to say this isn't what she came for: She's here to object to the hate in the air, and to hear how her government plans to make peace. The room around her, which looks to be entirely white, breaks into applause.

It's a small moment in a saga that is infinitely less complicated than that of police violence against Black Americans and those who support them. But the common-sense insistence of her complaint remains stirring, four decades later.

Production company: Title 8 Productions
Distributor: First Run Features (Available Tuesday, June 9 on VOD and DVD)
Director-Producer: Tim Tsai
Director of photography: Colin Harrington
Editors: Angela Pires, Tim Tsai
Composer: Alex Lu

69 minutes