At first glance, the new PBS docuseries “Asian Americans” follows the conventions of many history documentaries, interspersing archival footage, documents and photos with talking head commentary. Yet the five-part show, premiering Monday, unfolds almost like a prestige drama series, unspooling emotional personal tales.
The episodes center on individual Asian American and Pacific Islanders who lived through major historical events, and their descendants, who are often grappling with questions that complicate existing narratives about Asian Americans.
That people-centered and character-driven approach makes “Asian Americans,” the first major docuseries to attempt a sweeping examination of the diverse AAPI community, as informative for general audiences as it is for viewers who might already be deeply immersed in AAPI history.
It’s not “the sepia-toned version of Asian American history,” as the series’ producer and showrunner Renee Tajima-Peña said in an interview. “That’s not the real history.”
The series could not be more timely, as AAPI communities mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month while anti-Asian attacks surge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The docuseries shows how it’s all a continuation of the same cycle of calling Asian Americans’ Americanness into question — and a reminder that their existence in this country has always been conditional, from the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century to the racism and bigotry South Asians faced after 9/11.
The series also illuminates times when Asian Americans were engulfed in larger waves of racism and discrimination, but their personal stories only appear as mere footnotes in history textbooks — if they’re mentioned at all.
For AAPI veterans of the Vietnam War, the series explores how serving in the conflict forced them to confront their identities in new ways — a perspective absent from the many depictions of the Vietnam War in pop culture.
In the 1950s, the FBI surveilled and investigated Chinese Americans, like Jewish Americans, for suspected Communist ties.
When Americans started to move to the suburbs after World War II, Asian American families, like Black families, were subject to restrictive racial covenants and other forms of housing segregation. Real estate agents told them they “wouldn’t sell to Orientals.”
“These laws or these events, you know, they happen to people. They shape people’s lives, and then people shape history,” said Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American studies at UCLA. “What’s the meaning of this history? Not just like, what are the facts?”
The series draws from and builds on decades of work from Asian American filmmakers, scholars and activists.
“A lot of us in the Asian American film community have been wanting to make a series like this for decades,” said Tajima-Peña, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker of “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” and other films exploring the intersection of race, immigration, class and gender. “Twenty-five years ago or something, I wrote a treatment of an Asian American history series.”
It wasn’t until 2012 and 2013, after PBS had produced several other docuseries on specific racial or ethnic groups, that Tajima-Peña was finally approached to make a series about Asian Americans. And even after she got the green light, some white executives still questioned her qualifications, she said.
It took several more years to raise enough money for the series and for Tajima-Peña to make sure she had the right team to carry out her vision — a team that was representative of the stories the series would tell. Remarkably, she ended up with a largely Asian American production team that had experience telling stories about AAPI history, which is not typical of most PBS documentaries, she said. Similarly, almost every interviewee in the five-hour series — from the subjects and their descendants to historians, activists, famous faces like author Viet Thanh Nguyen, comedian Hari Kondabolu and actor Randall Park — is Asian.
But the show is still just a starting point. It broaches but doesn’t quite delve into other tensions, such as the anti-Blackness of some Asian immigrants, which was notably on display during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The murder of Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager, by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du, was a catalyst for the riots.
In the segment on the riots, the interviewees discuss how recent Asian immigrants often aren’t aware of the centuries of racism against Black people and the civil rights movement.
Asked whether the producers considered exploring the subject more deeply, Tajima-Peña said that “other than LA ’92, there was no story that really jumped out, because we’re looking at turning points in history.” Similarly, other topics got left on the cutting room floor, like affirmative action, which often divides Asian Americans along generational lines.
Tajima-Peña stressed that she wants viewers — including Asian Americans who might be unaware — to understand that anti-Asian racism is part of a system of white supremacy that affects all people of color but manifests itself in different ways. Many scholars interviewed for the series made the same point.
“We have to see all of these systems — Jim Crow segregation, Asian exclusion — as being interrelated,” historian Erika Lee says in the first episode. “They are all part of a larger system about how race works, how we define what it is to be an American.”
Historically, white political leaders used the racist “model minority” trope to pit Asians against Black and Latinx people. Asian Americans “have benefited from that wedge, but then suffered from racism at the same time,” Tajima-Peña said. For all people of color, “our futures are tied to each other, and always have been,” she added.
As the series shows, solidarity among people of color has made social and political change possible. The civil rights movement paved the way for the elimination of racist laws that affected Asian Americans, and many Asian American activists in the 1960s and ’70s drew inspiration from Black activists. Filipino and Mexican farmworkers organized together for better working conditions and higher wages and formed the United Farm Workers union. And during the wave of college protests in the late 1960s, Asian, Black and Latinx students in California protested side by side to successfully advocate for racial and ethnic studies classes and departments.
“That’s our fight,” Tajima-Peña said of the importance of Asian Americans becoming allies for other people of color and demonstrating solidarity in the fight against racism and white supremacy.
“If you’ve got two tumors, like if you have a stomach tumor and a lung tumor, you can’t just attack the stomach tumor and like, leave the one below — because it’s cancer. So for Asian Americans, it’s the cancer that we have to fight.”
Tajima-Peña hopes the series not only galvanizes more activism but also inspires a new generation of Asian American filmmakers to build on the series — citing “Eyes on the Prize,” the landmark PBS docuseries on the civil rights movement.
“A lot of those stories became feature-length documentaries,” she said. “So we hope these filmmakers will, you know, run with it. There are a lot of these great stories, and more can be told.”
“Asian Americans” airs Monday and Tuesday beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern on PBS.