PBS’s ‘Asian Americans’ Is Overdue, But Is Just the Start

The five-part series covers 150 years of the community’s diverse history — from the 1800s to 9/11 — yet still doesn’t go far enough.

Bedatri D. Choudhury

May 27, 2020

PBS’s ‘Asian Americans’ Is Overdue, But Is Just the Start
Asian Americans protest the Vietnam War in a scene from PBS’s new film series "Asian Americans." (PBS/WETA/CAAM)

In 1997, PBS aired Loni Ding’s two-part “docu-memoir” Ancestors in the Americas, about the history of early Asian immigrants. “She is the godmother of Asian American documentary filmmaking,” shared Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

It took over 20 years for anything similar to air on PBS again. This May, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the public broadcaster premiered Asian Americans, a five-hour-long documentary series with five episodes about the fastest-growing demographic in the United States that starts in 1850 and ends with the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Asian Americans is a seminal moment for American documentary films and creates a rightful place for Asian American stories. But the documentary had room to go further — to examine the political activism of South Asians beyond the bookends of Bhagat Singh Thind and 9/11, to go beyond the images of women in saris and men in turbans in montages, to explore the politics of gender and sexuality.