Who Killed Vincent Chin? Photo
Photo courtesy of Filmakers Library

Genre: Documentary
Ethnicity: Chinese American
Themes: Cultural Encounter & Misunderstanding, Labor & Class Issues, Political/Legal Issues (Activism, Violence & Crime)
Date: 1998
Running Time: 82 min.
Directors/Producers: Renee Tajima-Peña and Christine Choy
Availability: Filmakers Library
$395 Purchase/$95 Rental
On June 9 1982, at the height of anti-Japanese fervor in the US, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.  Chin had been celebrating the last days of his bachelorhood in a Detroit bar when he got into an altercation with Ebens and Nitz.  When Ebens and Nitz were sentenced to pay a fine and put on probation without having to serve jail sentences, the Asian American community rallied to bring the case to federal court, claiming that Ebens and Nitz violated Chin’s civil rights.

Renee Tajima- Peña and Christine Choy’s documentary explores the Vincent Chin story, raising questions about the complexity of race relations, immigrant life, and labor hostilities during a period of US auto industry recession and a "trade war" with Japan.  The filmmakers offer no conclusions of their own, but through a combination of news footage and interviews with witnesses, Chin’s family, and Ebens and Nitz and their families, they weave a nuanced and thought-provoking story.

Fishbein, Leslie.  "Film Reviews: Who Killed Vincent Chin?"  American Historical Review.  Vol. 95 Issue 4, October 1990.

Goldman, Debra.  "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" American Film.  Vol. 13 Issue 7, May 1988.

Kaplan, David.  "Film About a Fatal Beating Examines a Community."  New York Times.   July 16, 1989.

Shales, Tom.  "‘Vincent Chin’: The Wounds of a Dream Betrayed."  Washington Post.   July 18, 1989.

Smith, Mark Chalon.  "Rhetorical Question: `Who Killed Vincent Chin?’ Thought-provoking documentary leaves conclusions to viewers."  Los Angeles Times.  May 28, 1993.

Stack, Peter.  "Ugly Death of Vincent Chin."  San Francisco Chronicle.  March 2, 1989.

Supplementary Materials
Chang, Robert S.  "Dreaming in Black and White: Racial-Sexual Policing in The Birth of a Nation, The Cheat, and Who Killed Vincent Chin?" in Disoriented : Asian Americans, Law, and the Nation-state.  New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Lee, Helen.  "Historical Consciousness and the Viewer" in Screening Asian Americans.  Peter Feng (ed).  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Nichols, Bill.  "Historical Consciousness and the Viewer: Who Killed Vincent Chin?"  In: The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. Vivian Sobchack (ed).  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Zaniello, Tom.  Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff : An Organized Guide to Films about Labor.  Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1996.

Sample Discussion Questions
1.  The autoworkers interviewed in the film defend Ron Ebens, saying that they are not prejudiced against the Japanese or Chinese.  They insist that the issue (the auto "trade war" with Japan) was purely economic, not racial.
  • Was the discussion ever exclusively economic?  Think about politicians at the time who claimed that "we [the U.S.] are being shot at by the Japanese," Tip O’Neill (then Speaker of the House) saying "I’ll fix the Japanese", as well as political cartoons showing a foreign car dropping a bomb on Detroit.
  • What was the media’s role in emphasizing the racial element?
  • Is it possible to disentangle racial and economic factors?  Are racial and economic hostilities ever conflated?
2. The Asian American community rallied to bring the Vincent Chin case to federal court for civil rights violations. From information presented in the film, do you think race was a critical factor in the beating?

3.  From the attitudes expressed by the autoworkers, as well as in certain ads and news reports from the time, how were issues of patriotism, xenophobia, and economics articulated and expressed both in text and image?
Asian American Filmography ExEAS