Who Killed Vincent Chin? is a film rich in paradox. To begin with, its title is ironic: Vincent Chin’s murderer is known, and to an extent has accepted responsibility. But identifying “who” is not the incisive point of this complex and ambitious documentary “about” a young Chinese American who is clubbed to death by a white man. Instead the filmmakers, Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, chart the sudden collision of two American dreams outside a topless bar one hot Detroit night in 1982, and describe the labyrinthine course that justice, susceptible to competing pressures, pursues over the next four years. Vincent Chin is a film with no easy answers and broad implications.
Revealing interviews with the victim’s inconsolable mother, and with Ron Ebens, the middle-aged killer, and his wife and stepson, are integrated into newsreel and archival footage syncopated to some of Motown’s own sounds. This subtly constructed film embeds a single, awful incident within the turbulent social network of an America so deep in change that even its citizens, fearful of unemployment and wary of other races, don’t understand what is happening.
Almost 30 years later, the xenophobic rhetoric Renee Tajima-Peña poignantly examined in Academy Award-nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin? still saturates our country. Tajima-Peña exposed two working class white men whose internalized fear of immigrants “poaching” American jobs led to a violent and fatal act. Sound familiar? Tajima-Peña dedicated her craft to amplifying Asian-American and Latino voices and reintegrating their historical perspectives into mainstream media. From third generation Japanese-Americans grappling with cultural identity in My America...or Honk If You Love Buddha to forced sterilizations of Mexican-born women in East Los Angeles in No Mas Bebes, Tajima-Peña drives our conversations of inclusion past the black and white binary. A Guggenheim Fellow, Tajima-Peña now teaches at UCLA, where she is director of the Center for EthnoCommunications. Read her essay #DocsSoWhite: A Personal Reflection , on the lack of people of color behind the camera.
“The film is an indictment, but its cinematic language is vibrant, bursting with songs and textures and fragments of life, widening out to hear from regular-Joe autoworkers about their industry, or trailing Chin's mother as she visits a Chinese grocery. Revisiting the film today, I am simultaneously struck by its formal energy and its immediate relevance to the spasm of police violence that has laid bare a pervasive racism and sparked a powerful political movement. By summoning the power of documentary—its unique synthesis of art, politics and journalism— Who Killed Vincent Chin? provides a model for contemporary filmmakers committed to similar, necessary inquiries.”
—Jesse Moss, Documentary Magazine, 2016