Director Grace Lee, far right, stands with her crew assembled to film Tsuru for Solidarity in Crystal City, Texas. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

When filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña decided to produce a five-hour documentary series exploring the breadth of the Asian American experience, she was surprised to learn how little was generally known about the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic population.

On June 21, it was revealed that the Tajima-Peña’s project, “Asian Americans,” has been recognized with one of broadcast media’s most prestigious honors, the Peabody Award. Actress Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve”) made the presentation as part of a virtual awards ceremony.

Sandra Oh

“Thank you to Renee Tajima-Peña, the series’ producer, and filmmakers Grace Lee, S. Leo Chiang and Geeta Gandbhir and the rest of the team,” Oh said. “This series is an absorbing, inspiring and comprehensive body of work that walks us through our history, Asian American, American history.

“It is so important this was made. I know it took a long time, but to be able to watch and learn about my own history and to learn about those who fought before us, creating the pathway which we are on now, really fills me with such pride and motivation.

“We’re so grateful for your work. Congratulations to PBS’ ‘Asian Americans.’”

Renee Tajima-Peña

The project, which places Asian American and Pacific Islander communities at the center of debates about belonging and citizenship in America, is the first of its kind to present a comprehensive look at the spectrum of AAPI communities on a national broadcast platform.

For Tajima-Peña, an Academy Award nominee for “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” (1987), the journey was eye-opening. “We were really surprised by how much people don’t know about the Asian American experience,” she remarked. “Because I teach in Asian American Studies at UCLA, in a city like Los Angeles, I sometimes assume at least the basics are known. But we would ask some of the people on our crew, both Asian and non-Asian, and some had never heard of the Japanese American concentration camps or the Vincent Chin story.”

Commenting on the climate of anti-Asian hate occurring across the country, Tajima-Peña said, “Right now there’s an intense backlash to learning this history. ‘Critical race theory’ is used as the bogeyman, even though the critics of that theory really don’t understand what it is, but basically, it’s an attack on ethnic studies and on looking at systemic racism as a central fault line of the U.S.”

In one of the series’ episodes directed by Grace Lee and narrated by Tamlyn Tomita, the camera follows Satsuki Ina and a contingent representing Tsuru for Solidarity that traveled to the southern border. “They intentionally stopped at Crystal City, where Satsuki and others had been incarcerated (during World War II), and then went on to Dilley, where they protested the migrant detention camp (and demanded) ‘Stop Repeating History.’ But you’ve got to know the history first.”

The documentary, narrated by both Daniel Dae Kim and Tomita, aired on public broadcasting stations in May 2020 and was produced in collaboration with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), PBS station WETA (Washington, D.C.), Flash Cuts, LLC., Tajima-Peña Productions, and ITVS (PBS).

Named for businessman and philanthropist George Peabody, the 81st annual Peabody Awards recognize the enlightening and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media. Winners are selected from a list of 60 nominees revealed last month, chosen from more than 1,300 entries. Nominees and winners must be unanimously chosen by the Board of Jurors.

In “Asian Americans,” Nisei Buddy Uno reminisces as he looks over his family album. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“I think that two of the most dangerous words, for some people, in America today are history and solidarity,” said Tajima-Peña. “And those two ideas are at the core of the ‘Asian Americans’ series. Many people look at Asian Americans as ‘the quiet ones, the model minority’ who never fight back, but if you look at history, that’s simply not true.

“Since the time we first started immigrating to this country, Asian Americans have fought for equality and justice…and in each step of the way we fought back in solidarity with other Americans who believed in justice and equality.

“That’s why the Peabody Award is so meaningful to us, because of the mission of the Peabody Awards to create a more just society and to create content and to create films and radio shows and communicate those ideals to the audience.”

“More than the award itself, I really appreciate the recognition that our history matters. And when you look back on this terrible year of the pandemic and racial violence, many Asian Americans have invoked our history to fight against current injustices.”

More recently, Tajima-Peña produced “The May 19 Project,” a series of short films created alongside writer and cultural strategist Jeff Chang to help counter “the divisive narratives we were seeing this spring.” May 19 is the shared birthday of Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X, two civil rights icons who were friends. The videos can be viewed on the website www.seeusunite.org/unite.

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