Silences. Directed by Octavio Warnock-Graham. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2014. 22 minutes.
Anomaly. Directed by Jessica Chen Drammeh. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2013. 47 minutes.
Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan. Directed by Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2013. 85 minutes.
In their coedited volume Global Mixed Race, editors Rebecca C. King-O’Riain, Stephen Small, Minelle Mahtani, Miri Song, and Paul Spickard move beyond U.S. borders to critically examine the experiences of mixed race peoples comparatively.1 The directors of these three documentaries reviewed here locate their experiences amongst those who are similarly mixed, allowing viewers to consume a myriad of experiences from Maumee, Ohio, in Octavio Warnock-Graham’s Silences to Japan in Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi’s Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan and to Wheeling, West Virginia, in Jessica Chen Drammeh’s Anomaly. Each of these documentaries introduces the personal and familial while also locating race in the competing factors of nation-state and the nation-states’ campaigns for multiculturalism.
Warnock-Graham’s Silences begins this journey by introducing his own story: he was born to a white mother in Washington, DC, and until the making of this film all he had known about his father came from rumors within the family. This highly personal documentary captures familial interviews, the most powerful of which is with his maternal grandmother, Franny Warnock. He asks her, “When did Harriet [his mother] tell you I was black?” to which she responds, “Harriet didn’t tell me ever you were black because you’re not black” and punctuates the statement with an emotional slam of the oven door. The silences that overwhelm the kitchen in this scene and that reappear in other scenes overpower the audience. They are not all-encompassing silences but ones that are coded, “signify[ing] the instability of ‘truth’ and ‘history,’” as King-Kok Cheung describes in Articulate Silences.2 Director, Warnock-Graham juxtaposes these scenes of familial silence with ones in which he remembers how his peers bullied him as a child for being black. This structure highlights the link between “identity declaration (what people say they think they are) and identity differentiation (what other people say they are)” and, more importantly, how each is shaped by larger national and communal narratives constructing race as “marked by external signals like skin color, hair texture, and accent.”3 Indeed, when the documentary culminates in Warnock-Graham’s reconnection with his birth father, Corrie Andrews, he states how liberating it is to no longer be under the power of his mother’s silence as the camera pans across San Francisco, the director’s current home. Here, the audience remembers that this narrative is particularly powerful because it shows how the alienation that many mixed-race people feel, especially those that grow up in homogeneous communities such as Maumee, can shift to encompass a stronger “identity declaration” in larger, heterogeneous communities.
The illusion of homogeneity ruptures not only in the United States but also abroad, as shown in Nishikura and Perez Takagi’s Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan. This documentary introduces David Mitsuaki Yano, Sophia Fukunishi, Tetsuya Oi, Gabriela Oi, Alex Oi, Sara Oi, Edward Yutaka Sumoto, and Fusae Miyako to explore the stories of mixed-race individuals and families in Japan. Here, the audience is confronted with new issues regarding mixed-race experiences: growing up in a Japanese orphanage with a phenotype that others immediately classify as “not Japanese” (David), arriving to Japan with no knowledge of the Japanese language (Sophia), raising mixed-race, multilingual children who cannot flourish in a monolingual Japanese school system (the Oi family), confronting the reality of what it means to become a naturalized citizen of Japan while feeling that you are losing a part of your culture (Edward), and, finally, finding out as a teenager that you are mixed-race (Fusae). This documentary grapples with being mixed-race Ghanaian (David), Australian (Sophia), Mexican with U.S.-American linguistic roots (Oi family), Venezuelan (Edward), and Korean (Fusae) while at the same time finding community.
Mixed Roots Japan, in particular, fosters these communities and encourages individuals to be themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in a video on the group’s website, “Pharell Williams ‘Happy’: Mixed Roots Japan Ver,” which features Edward, the Oi family, and Fusae, as well as many others, dancing to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.4 Hafu introduces the various aspects of this organization and lingers momentarily on the more academic issues. For example, in one scene at a Mixed Roots Japan event, participants engage the various terms for mixed race: mixed roots, hāfu (this term draws from the English word “half” to indicate someone is half-Japanese), and daburu (double). One participant, Eliza Seki, concludes that “mixed roots” is the term with which she most identifies: “When the culture at home is a little different and I’m labeled as just Japanese, it doesn’t paint the whole picture.” Indeed, this whole picture is what the directors intend: giving a voice to mixed-race individuals in Japan and reminding the viewers that “Japan is changing.”
The personal stories of mixed-race people come alive when highlighted in their on-stage performances, as Jessica Chen Drammeh shows in Anomaly. This documentary moves past one individual’s perspective on being mixed race in the United States, bringing together the voices of artists Gabriella Callender, Michelle Myers, Pete Shungu, Thaddeus Rutkowski, and Rona Taylor while presenting academic discourses on mixed race through discussions with Jennifer Chau, Michele Elam, Ann Morning, Eric Hamako, and Jennifer Chan. This documentary explores mixed race as a concept, both historically and individually, highlighting how “being ‘less than’ was always the feeling” for many mixed-race individuals. Drawing attention to the dynamics of mixed-race politics on a larger scale, Anomaly introduces and interrogates the gap between 1920 and 2000 during which the U.S. census did not allow individuals to declare more than one race. The documentary juxtaposes this invisibility with the contemporary hypervisibility of mixed-race peoples in the media, citing articles in the New York Times, Time, and National Geographic. As scholar Julie Matthews points out, “Eurasian/mixed race can be taken to represent a form of new-age métissage mixedness comprising cosmopolitan hybridity and diasporic transnational mobility.”5 And yet the documentary is quick to point out that the commodification and exotification of these mixed-race bodies in media deny the historical factors that silenced their voices or stripped them of part of their identity. Moreover, in celebrating these “new classifications,” there is a disavowal of the individual voices and experiences of mixed-race peoples. To address this absence, Anomaly includes Gabriella’s song “Black and White,” Thaddeus’s skit “White and Wong,” Pete’s “Third Eye-dentity,” and Michelle’s spoken-word piece “Arirang” (The return). Through these cultural productions, the audience can access mixed-race experiences in a more immediate way, exposing students to the idea that Rona voices: that she will “be true to who [she is] as an individual.”
Together, these documentaries offer students multiple ways to consider what it means to be mixed race. Although Silences first appeared in 2006, it gained visibility in the academic sphere at the 2012 Critical Mixed Race Studies conference at DePaul University, at a time when attention turned more generally toward multiracial identities. Hafu first made its U.S. debut at the 2013 Hapa Japan Festival in Los Angeles, and the fall 2013 Asian American Literary Review’s special issue “Mixed Race in a Box” offered a supplemental teaching platform with academic essays, cultural productions, and digital media that explored different pedagogical aspects of mixed race. Reaching over eighty-two classrooms at seventy-three institutions in ten countries, the success of this platform highlights how students want to engage with the topic of mixed-race identity. These documentaries help educators facilitate these conversations.
1 Rebecca C. King-O’Riain, Stephen Small, Minelle Mahtani, Miri Song, and Paul Spickard, eds., Global Mixed Race (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
2 King-Kok Cheung, Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Joy Kogawa (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 15.
3 Rebecca C. King-O’Riain, “Global Mixed Race: A Conclusion,” in Global Mixed Race, 267.
4 Mixed Roots Japan, “Pharell Williams ‘Happy’: Mixed Roots Japan Ver.,” Mixed Roots Japan, May 24, 2014, http://www.mixroots.jp/.
5 Julie Matthews, “Eurasian Persuasions: Mixed Race, Performativity and Cosmopolitanism,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 28, no. 1 (2007): 51.