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What makes an American film “American”

On Sunday, Jan. 5, the 77th Golden Globe Awards took place, marking the beginning of major televised film awards shows leading up to the prestigious Academy Awards. Although most of the awards were given to those expected to win, the night was not without its surprises.

Most notably, actress Awkwafina’s nuanced portrayal of a Chinese-American millennial in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” won her Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. With this win, she became the first woman of Asian descent to ever win a Golden Globe in a lead actress film category. 

But this historical win reveals a larger issue at hand: the film was nominated in the Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language category despite being a story with an Asian-American lead and an Asian-American director and screenwriter. What makes a film American — and who is allowed to designate that title?

After receiving backlash from the director herself, as well as several journalists and fans, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organization that nominates and votes for the Golden Globes, responded saying that films spoken in more than 50 percent of a foreign language (a language other than English) are designated to be categorized as a Foreign Language film. 

The majority of the dialogue in “The Farewell,” which is set between New York and China, is indeed in Mandarin. But using language as the basis of defining whether a film is American is ignoring the multiculturalism at the foundation of America. According to the United States Census Bureau, 2.9 million people speak Mandarin at home, making it the most widely spoken language in the U.S. after English and Spanish. A film like “The Farewell” is not depicting a foreign experience; rather, it is telling a very American story, a story with which millions of Asian Americans can identify. 

Furthermore, awards shows’ bias against films that are not centered around the experiences of white people is made even more apparent when considering the films that have been nominated in the past. Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 drama, “Inglourious Basterds,” was nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Drama. However, according to the HFPA’s Foreign Language category guidelines, it should have been nominated in the Foreign Language category, as only 30% of the film is spoken in English with the rest spoken in a mix of German, French and Italian. The distinguishing factor? Tarantino is an American, white director, and his film had almost zero people of color. 

I am not discrediting the film’s accolades or quality but rather questioning the inconsistency with which awards shows approach nominating films that do not fit the status quo — that American stories are white stories. A film that tells the story of American people of color is not any more or less American, and the recognition of this is paramount.

By Sarah Aie, Online editor-in-chief
Editorial Cartoon by Daniela Marquez