‘Minari’ made me sob. I was one of those small-town Korean Americans everyone insisted didn’t exist

Jean Lee
·5-min read
Film Review - Minari (©A24)
Film Review - Minari (©A24)

After years of watching “universal” works of art, using stories about white America featuring white actors to escape from reality, Minari felt true to me in a way that evoked real, tangible pain. The film — nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture — emotionally affected me in a way I didn’t think was possible.

Minari began with a closeup on young David’s face, as he looks out the window of a car trailing a moving van. The Arkansas landscape is a blur, buildings small amid the vast farmland. Young Anne, David’s older sister, reads a book, the camera close upon its pages. And I could feel the catch in my throat. The scene was too reminiscent of something, and I pressed pause, afraid to keep going. That starting scene — Korean American kids in the backseat moving into small-town America — reinforced something I have always known to be true: There is no white rural America. We have always been in this country’s heartland, farmlands, the woodland on our northern shores, and the ever-present rural “upstate.” And life in these places is full of hardship.

The characters then pull up to a trailer, long and small and on wheels, and Monica — David’s mother — is perplexed. She asks Jacob — David’s father — what this place is, and he explains that it is home. On the other side of the screen, I started sobbing.

I cried throughout the film and, for a week after, flashed back to moments like little David pouring himself Mountain Dew and whispering that it’s “David’s favorite.” I thought about Jacob, a complex depiction of a young American man trying to provide for his family, happily doing strenuous labor as his son watched, smiling. I thought about how my father called Frosted Flakes “Dad’s favorite” and how I, at four years old, accompanied him, in his arms, as he visited gas stations desperately looking for a job. I asked the service providers to “please give my daddy a job” because he couldn’t speak English yet. I remembered how he pronounced “garden,” overturning our front yard to plant lettuce and asparagus, as older white men in neighboring yards glowered and threw beer cans into our driveway.

We worried, didn’t have money, and attended a white church where the people subtly and explicitly othered us. We had moved away from a Korean American community in New Jersey where children attended Korean classes in a church basement and away from Queens, where my mother’s sisters lived. My father, strong and complicated and proud like Jacob, drove a forklift at night and cultivated vegetables during the day. He and my mother experienced instances of violence, like so many other Asian Americans have. And in a land where no one looked like us — without popular depictions of people like us — there was no real recourse.

The girl who learns to drive in a large truck, standing up to peek out the back when parallel parking; who can lift heavy tarps off of farmland; who reads atop the freezer while working at the local bakery, interested in how mechanics fix her mom’s mail truck — who I was and who I am — is usually white in American films. Minari was the first time I saw a film that showed a family similar to my own. For a week after my first viewing, I thought about David and Anne’s future among white people in rural America. Would David lose his energetic spark? Would Anne retreat into books, quiet until she left the fields of Arkansas? Would she want to see her mother but avoid that town for years, dreading the suffocating air of racism that permeates the countryside?

When would they learn that they are not alone in their experience? The 2010 census showed that one in five people in rural America is a person of color.

Rogelio Saenz grew up in rural Texas, surrounded by Mexican American neighbors. He grew up among the children of immigrants, living a small-town rural American life. But he noticed a disparity every time he stepped into the classroom.

“Despite the fact that about 95 percent of the kids were Latino, I didn’t have a Latino teacher until I was in sixth grade,” said Saenz. “All my teachers were white.”

The classroom disparity was a stark reminder that those in power tend to be white even when most of the population is not. When Saenz moved away to college, he learned that this classroom structure — a white teacher in charge of mostly Latino children — reflected power disparities throughout the United States. He learned that the popularized image of small-town America was also a reflection of the United States’ power disparities — and didn’t often include people like him.

Saenz became a demographer and sociologist at the University of San Antonio, and now focuses his research on Latino communities in places including rural Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

The Trump campaign in 2016 favored the fictional image of a homogenous white rural America, an explicit demonstration of racism. It presented a neatly packaged illusion of white supremacy that erases the United States’ true origins as a country founded on slavery and genocide, continuously villainizing immigrants of color who cross its borders. The fact that it took this long for a movie likeMinari to exist is not harmless. It is the result of erasure.

David Johns, the director of the National Black Justice Coalition, explains that white supremacy promotes what critical race theorists refer to as “master narrative myths.” These myths are culturally shared stories that shape how people think about themselves and, he said, “what it means to be an American.” “And one of the traditional pejorative myths about Blackness suggests that we are all descendants of enslaved Africans who live in major metropolitan spaces and rarely contribute to families, our communities, or our country in positive ways,” he adds.

There is a massive fire near the end ofMinari: destructive, out of control, and all-consuming. The family journeys through emotional and financial turmoil to a small victory, only to be usurped by circumstance. But this isn’t the end. They venture forward, travailing the land, walking through nature, and turning over soil, together and alone. Through the fields of Arkansas, sowing the seeds of Korean produce.

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