A Different Story: The State of Black Immigrant Tales in the Digital Age

Sophia Dorval

 

The early days of the Clintonian era were, in stark contrast to that period’s recession that caused a dearth of opportunities for Generation X, an explosion both in and out of the mainstream in regards to portrayals of cultural identity.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the far more nuanced representations of the Asian and Asian-American experience in both conventional and independent cinema. 

 

Hollywood’s 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club received mixed reviews and performed modestly (it received $33 million at the box office) during its theatrical release, but in the two decades since, it’s become a staple on American cable networks, and has been viewed by millions, and resonated with just as many.   In his September 17, 1993 review of the film, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “These stories are about Chinese and Chinese-American characters, but they are universal stories. Anyone with parents or children, which is to say, everyone, will identify with the way that the hopes of one generation can become both the restraints and the inspirations of the next.”

Canadian filmmaker Mina Shum’s indie Double Happiness covered similar terrain through the eyes of a woman torn between her family’s efforts to find her a successful Chinese husband to settle down with and her own passions for both becoming an actress and her white paramour.  Starring a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh, it also eventually found a new life and audiences on American cable networks.  In his August 25, 1995 review of the film, Ebert wrote, ” "Double Happiness" is not a deep or brilliant film, but that's not its purpose…By the end, she has told a story that has been told uncounted times for centuries on this continent, which was settled by people who left home and yet tried to bring it with them.”

During this same time period, television’s racial boundaries were briefly broken with the premiere of the first and ultimately only season of comedienne Margaret Cho’s failed ABC sitcom All-American Girl, which was essentially a toned-down version of her brash, uncompromising stand–up acts about her Korean-American upbringing in San Francisco.  As she later stated in her 2000 concert film I’m The One That I Want, there was far more drama behind the scenes of the show than in its scripts; including network executives going as far as to hire an “Asian consultant” in an effort to have Cho act “more Asian” on the show. 

 

The network’s attempt to please both Asian-American and broader audiences meant that All-American Girl lost any chance of making an impact with viewers of any race.  In his October 7, 1994 review of the show for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker wrote that “From its title on down, All-American Girl is the opposite of what Margaret Cho's stand-up act is about: This sitcom ends up endorsing ethnic myths. The very fact that the show is called All-American Girl implies that it's still peculiar for a young woman with Asian features to be considered a ''true'' American. Every character in the series is a tidy stereotype: Grandma is hopelessly unassimilated; Margaret's parents are first-generation strivers; Margaret is a second-generation rebel doing her best to reject her roots for what she sees as the freedom of American pop culture… so far on Girl, the stereotypes are taking the place of humor.” 

 

 

When the personally political ‘90s gave way to the digital era of the 2000s the “centuries-old” tale of trying to make it in a modern world while still trying to please the old one found new life on the silver, small, and iPhone screens.  The most notable examples of this include British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s 2003 global hit Bend It Like Beckham, in which a teenage girl secretly joins a soccer team behind her Punjabi Sikh family’s back.  It grossed nearly $80 million worldwide a decade after The Joy Luck Club’s release, and also launched the career of future Pirates of the Caribbean star Keira Knightley.   The film adaptation of Nia Vardalos’ play My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a comedy about a 30 year old Greek American woman from a colorful family who gets engaged to an archetypal American dreamboat, surpassed those numbers a year before earning nearly $400 million during its theatrical run. 

And nearly 20 years after Cho’s challenging ordeal with ABC, Indian–American writer, producer, director, and actress Mindy Kaling followed up her successful run with NBC’s flagship sitcom The Office by helming her own FOX sitcom The Mindy Project, which has managed to get praise from both viewers and critics alike, and is about to go into its third season with no signs of slowing down.  Save for a few interactions with her brother in the first season, Kaling’s OB/GYN character Dr.  Mindy Lahiri’s family is the least of her immediate concerns.   She is a classic single girl in the city; a modern, relatable romantic comedy archetype looking for love in all the wrong places with eligible bachelors from all walks of life. 

 

And this fall ABC will be premiering the family sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, which is based on chef and TV personality Eddie Huang’s 2013 memoir.  John Cho, alum of the Harold & Kumar film franchise, which used the lens of the bromance to skewer longheld stereotypes about Asian-Americans and spawned three successful films in the noughties, will also be featured on the network in the sitcom Selfie, a digital age Pygmalion update.  

 

 

The dominant first and second generation narratives in both film and television seem to have focused largely on Asian and Latino communities, with occasional forays into the European experience, as evidenced recently with Devious Maids’ Roselyn Sanchez and Dania Ramirez’ portrayals of Carmen, a singer who becomes a maid to a Latin pop star as a fast track to her big break, and Rosie, a Dominican immigrant who spends much of the show’s first season struggling to bring her young son stateside, and  the Elevator series on the sitcom Louie in which the main character saves the life of a Hungarian immigrant and starts a romance with her visiting niece in the process. 

 

However, the state of first and second generation narratives in the African diaspora is sorely lacking in comparison.  The dominant Black voice in mainstream cinema and television is overwhelmingly American.  It is no secret that nuanced portraits of Black immigrants and the experience of their offspring in mainstream media are few and far between. 

During the Reagan era, the sitcoms The Cosby Show and A Different World would occasionally feature characters from the Caribbean or South Africa, particularly during the country’s apartheid years.  The FOX comedy sketch show In Living Color satirized the stereotypical Caribbean work ethic in their Hey Mon sketches, in which members of the Hedley family, including the “lazy bum” whose main signifier were his dreadlocks, would rattle off the seemingly endless list of menial jobs they had whenever they came across those who had the gall to only have one job. (One particular sketch even pits the Hedleys up against the Wans, a Korean family who open a fruit stand next to their restaurant.)

 

The actor Doug E. Doug of Cool Runnings fame also briefly starred in the critically acclaimed, low-rated sitcom Where I Live, which was centered around the misadventures of a Trinidian-American youth living with his hardworking parents in Harlem.  Those portrayals, however limited or nuanced, were nearly 25 years ago. 

 

If one is looking today for something beyond the cultural caricatures on crime procedurals, even a cursory glance at websites such as Netflix, Indieflix, and Snag Films that do house cutting-edge works and cover global topics can still leave one wanting for such an experience.  “I think there’s an issue in general, with black film as sort of rare, seen as the niche.,” says Haitian-American filmmaker Stefani Saintonge, who recently received Essence Magazine’s Discovery award after her short film Seventh Grade won the publication’s Black Women In Hollywood Short Film Contest.   “ …To have non-Americans, first generations as well, is even more of a specific niche.  I think it has to do with proportion and just the lack of Caribbean-Americans, and African-Americans, (Africans from Africa) creating work.  I would think that studios would think it was a pretty small audience.  There’s not as many Caribbean-Americans as Latin Americans, there’s not as many Caribbean Americans as there are Asian-Americans either.  It’s probably a combination of things, the lack of filmmakers and the lack of an audience perhaps.  I tend to feel that some things are universal, that the first generation experience can be universal and can appeal to a wide audience…Investors, they want to see something more concrete.  If it happens that there’s no example or precedent for it they’re not going to take much of a risk on it.”

 

 

First and second generation narratives in the African diaspora undeniably have a far more solid home in the world of literature, most notably with authors such as the Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose 2003 novel The Namesake was adapted by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) in 2006,  Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, and the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat.  Interesting to note, the last two authors have been successful for nearly two decades, and Hollywood has either failed to express interest, or has been unable to bring any of their literary works to fruition.  In the case of Diaz’ 2007 genre breaking, smash novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, (a work that has garnered  on top of critical praise, raves from the Dominican-American starlet Zoe Saldana), it’s truly puzzling.  Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, which depicts the little known Parsley Massacre of 1937, would also be interesting material to mine for a feature film. 

There are some glimmers of light in regards to cinema; Sierra Leonian-American Nikyatu Jusu’s  early short films Say Grace Before Drowning and African Booty Scratcher deal with themes such as recovering from wartime trauma, the cultural dualities of being both African and American, and intraracial disharmony.  The Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s second feature length indie Mother of George, about Nigerian newlyweds living in Brooklyn and are struggling to conceive, starred Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame, and was released this past fall to rave reviews.

The digital revolution has managed to have a profound effect on mainstream cinema and television; one example being the comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live making  a star out of Andy Samberg by airing the digital shorts he created with his fellow members of The Lonely Island, and with Old School director Adam McKay creating the popular website FunnyOrDie.com.  Perhaps in the near future, there could be a similar development for Black first and second generation artists who wish to showcase their work, especially as audiences’ attention spans and the length of web videos grow shorter.  “Short films are usually self-financed.  It’s usually just the filmmaker making it happen,” says Saintonge.   “I guess when we have the power in our hands, it’s a different story. “

 

Author Bio:

Sophia Dorval is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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