A Story About An Asian-American Family Is An American Story — Why Are Award Shows Saying Otherwise?

Photo: courtesy of A24.
This post has been updated with new information.
If all you wanted for Christmas was some awards show drama, then the Golden Globes have more than delivered. For the second time in two years, an American film will compete in the Foreign-Language category rather than Best Picture. The reason? Its characters speak a language other than English.
Isaac Lee Cheung’s Minari tells the story of a Korean-American family who moves to Arkansas in pursuit of the American Dream. Steven Yeun has already garnered awards buzz for his performance as father Jacob Yi, as has Han Ye-ri, who plays his wife Monica. The family dynamics get a jolt from the arrival of grumpy matriarch Soonja (Yuhn Ye-jung) from Korea, who joins the previously settled couple and their young son (Alan Kim) in their new home. 
Like The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s beautiful film which was also barred from competing in the Best Picture category last year, Minari is a movie about the complexity of American identity, the push and pull between one’s culture of origin and the desire to assimilate into the country you’ve chosen to make your own. As a result, much of the dialogue is in Korean, which, according to HFPA rules, makes it ineligible to compete in the wider Best Picture race. 

In a tweet responding to the news that Minari would be competing as a foreign-language film, Wang wrote: “I have not seen a more American film than ‘Minari’ this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, in America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking.”
Daniel Dae Kim chimed in, adding:  “The film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.”
“Just for the record,” wrote Simu Liu, who will play the protagonist in Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, "‘Minari’ is an American movie written and directed by an American filmmaker set in America with an American lead actor and produced by an American production company. What could be more American than that?”
By siloing The Farewell and Minari to the foreign-language race, Hollywood is essentially equating Americanness with English, a designation that feels unquestionably Eurocentrist, antiquated, and racially-biased. 

What’s more, it’s not as if the HFPA has applied this rule with intractable objectivity in the past. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film about a U.S. Army unit seeking revenge on Nazi soldiers in France, was allowed to compete in the Best Picture race, even though it featured multiple languages throughout its run-time. Between the German, French and whatever version of Italian Brad Pitt thought he was speaking as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a good chunk of Inglourious Basterds’ dialogue was not in English. The difference? The actors are mostly white.
In 2006, Alexander Iñárritu’s Babel, also featuring Pitt along with Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama. The film’s action and dialogue spread across the United States, Mexico, Morocco and Japan, Perhaps the reason is just that studios and the HFPA can’t really make a case for a movie starring A-list movie stars like Pitt and Blanchett to compete in any other category. (Although Minari is produced by Pitt’s company, Plan B.) But then what does that say about which actors we consider important? 
Unfortunately, this problem seeps beyond the Golden Globes. Last year, the Academy Awards changed the name of the Best Foreign-Language Film category to Best International Feature Film in a much-publicized push towards inclusion. But this turned out to be a change in name only. In 2020, Lionheart, Nigeria’s submission to the Oscars, was disqualified because it featured too much English to be considered, a decision that ignored the fact that English is the official language of Nigeria, a lasting vestige of colonialism. Just last week, Canada’s submission for the 2021 ceremony, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, a movie which is largely in Tamil and Sinhalese, was disqualified for the same reason. 
The incidents at the Oscars and the Golden Globes are two sides of the same coin. They both equate foreign-ness with non-English speaking countries, which by default seems to assume that anyone who speaks another language isn’t a real American. 
While not exactly surprising, the decision around Minari is especially disappointing after Awkwafina’s historic Golden Globes win., becoming the first Asian-American to win Best Actress for her performance in The Farewell, not to mention Parasite’s incredible Best Picture win at the 2020 Oscars. It’s yet another step backwards at a time when our heels are already hanging off the edge of a cliff. This is not the energy we agreed to bring into 2021. 

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